SAN FRANCISCO -- In a fun-filled spoof of the foodie-favorite "Iron Chef" competition, educators from around the country are matching wits this summer at the Exploratorium as they vie for the title of "The Iron Science Teacher."
Two Bay Area teachers participating in the Exploratorium's leadership institute faced off against four scientists from the hands-on museum last Friday. Each showcased their imagination and ingenuity by taking the same ingredient -- paper -- and turning the everyday material into an amazing science and math lesson.
In a lesson called "Super Paper," Elizabeth Brooking, a sixth-grade teacher from Wilson Elementary in Richmond, showed that paper is sort of like Superman: It is strong and it can fly. It also can be walked through.
"It is amazing," she said. "Paper can leap tall buildings in a single bound."
Brooking demonstrated its strength by asking children to pull it apart, showing that friction held a ream of paper together. And when a child karate chopped it, paper didn't break.
Then she tossed a wadded paper ball and folded paper airplane into the audience, showing paper in flight. Finally, she cut paper in a way that allowed it to stretch out into a wide opening, showing that a girl could walk through it.
Not to be outdone, eighth-grade science teacher Tammy Cook from the independent Menlo School in Atherton, showed how soap bubbles affected a paper boat dropped into water. She
"When soap comes in," she said, "it totally messes with the surface tension."
Although these demonstrations received appreciative applause, the audience decided the winner was Lori Lambertson, an Exploratorium scientist who folded an envelope into a tetrahedron -- a three-dimensional triangle. She then showed how that shape could be enlarged to form fractals, which are geometric forms found in nature.
Now in its 15th year, the Iron Science Teacher competition is part of a three-week Teachers' Institute at the Exploratorium that helps science educators come up with innovative ways to engage students in activities that don't cost a lot of money, but can generate a lot of enthusiasm and "aha" moments. Teachers say it has transformed their teaching.
"It changed my life," said Brooking. "You really have to be energetic and have kids thinking of things in a different way. If kids aren't doing, they're not thinking."
Cook agreed, saying she values the community of teachers and experts involved in the program.
"It changed how we teach," she said. "Teaching can be so isolating."
The institute offers a network of educators throughout the country who answer questions and share ideas about bringing science to life in the classroom. Newcomers said the institute gave them a chance to follow their own curiosity.
"It's awesome," said Helene Burkes, who teaches biology, chemistry and environmental science at El Cerrito High. "It's kind of like a camp for science teachers. We get to do experiments and they have a workshop where we get to build stuff. Plus, it's fun."
Mike Wilson, who teaches sixth- through eighth-grade science at Stuart Elementary in Pinole, said he plans to enter the Iron Science Teacher competition next week, demonstrating air pressure by blowing the bottom off a glass bottle. Teachers these days, he said, need to be able to capture students' attention.
"Everyone wants more tools," Wilson said. "Especially in the last few years, you're competing against video games and you've got to make yourself a better performer. To me, the more hands-on stuff I can do, the more 'wow' stuff I can do, the more they're going to get out of it."
To see a video of the June 29 Iron Science Teacher competition, visit www.exploratorium.edu/TV/. Click on "Iron Science Teacher" under "Featured Series," then select "Exploratorium paper products."
For links to video clips of local teachers in the competition and more information about the Teachers' Institute, read the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.