Show of force

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Competition is tough in the Iron Science challenge, a teachers'contest that often goes with a bang. Stephen Phillips reports

Getting mobbed by fans isn't in the job description of your average science educator, but passions run high at the Iron Science Teacher contest, hosted by the Exploratorium, San Francisco's pioneering interactive science museum. Linda Shore's day job is directing the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute, a summer school and year-round professional development programme for science teachers, but every Friday lunchtime throughout the summer holidays - and at odd other times during the year - she becomes Iron Science Teacher's "mistress of ceremonies". And that's when she becomes the centre of science groupies' attention.

Modelled on Iron Chef, a cult cable television cooking show from Japan that is screened in the United States, Canada and Australia, the competition rewards the teacher who concocts the most ingenious, entertaining and, of course, educational experiment using a random mystery ingredient.

Like the zany celebrity chef cook-off it parodies, the show, broadcast live on the internet, has already garnered a devoted following. Regulars include an elderly couple, a family of four and, particularly gratifying, a group of science teachers from Japan, who religiously tune into the web-casts and who made a pilgrimage to the Exploratorium a couple of years back.

"It's gone full circle," says Ms Shore. "Here we are doing this take-off of Iron Chef and we get teachers from Japan." Not bad for something conceived as a joke in 1998 and intended as a one-off novelty.

Seven teachers drawn from the Teacher Institute square off in each contest, with the one earning the rowdiest applause declared the winner. "Things that explode, or competitors with showmanship, tend to win," Ms Shore admits. Ingredients, revealed to competitors a week beforehand, must be "easy to find, recyclable and cheap". But that doesn't mean boring or obvious. There are still tampons lodged in the Exploratorium's ceiling rafters from one contest. "For women's health month, we did a special show with female hygiene products," says Ms Shore. To demonstrate acceleration, one teacher fashioned a blowgun from several tampon applicators and shot tampons into the air. The longer the blowgun, the greater the acceleration and the further the tampon was launched.

But, amid all the wackiness, there's a serious purpose. "All of our activities use materials that are easy to find," she says. "Most schools have no laboratory equipment, so we want to show teachers it's possible to do powerful, authentic science with simple items."

On a Friday in early July, the mystery prop is shrouded by a black veil as Ms Shore warms up the crowd assembled for today's contest. Two cameras pan across the cordoned-off area on the Exploratorium's main floor and a third cameraman, with a small hand-held camera, darts in for close-ups as each of the contestants is introduced and the teachers bound on stage.

The veil is ceremoniously removed to reveal a basket of golf balls. Each competitor will get 10 minutes to build an experiment around the dimpled white spheres. Overstep your time and a bell will toll and you'll be ignominiously hauled off stage, warns Ms Shore.

First up is secondary school physics teacher Jonathan Griggs of Lafayette, California, who rigs up a crude catapult to show how mass and potential energy combine to create energy - in this case, the propulsion of a golf ball.

Next, a duo of California maths teachers ham it up to demonstrate "kinetic sieving". "I'm really hungry," says Tatjana Ravnik, coveting the large Brazils in a jar of nuts clutched by Elizabeth Brooking, and the two stage a mock squabble. To illustrate how the largest nuts rise to the top, they drop a golf ball into a plastic jar, pour rice over it and shake the mixture. Voila, the golf ball bobs to the surface. "No two things can occupy the same space at the same time," explains Ms Ravnik. "Smaller objects will sift to the bottom to occupy smaller spaces, pushing larger objects up."

Meanwhile, it's anyone's guess what biology teacher Donna Edwards from Fremont, California, is up to, brandishing a pair of binoculars, a flock of cuddly toy birds and the whole basket of golf balls. She's just back from bird-watching, she explains. Introducing her faux-feathered friends - a condor, penguin, pelican, duck and parrot, among others - she asks the audience to name some differences between them. "Beaks!" "Wings!" pipe up a chorus of little voices.

It still looks like quite a leap to incorporate the golf balls, but Ms Edwards enlists four students, handing out a spoon, ice-cream scoop, and a small and large pair of tongs, respectively, to scoop up as many golf balls as they can in 10 seconds. The student wielding the big tongs grabs the most, illustrating, Ms Edwards explains, how biological characteristics enable some bird species to eat more easily and reproduce more prolifically than others.

She almost steals the show, but the loudest cheer is for Nathan Castellanos, a rookie teacher from nearby Napa Valley, who cooks up a variant on a US carnival game, rolling a golf ball down a W-shaped piece of track to explain kinetic energy and friction.

Such tidbits are invaluable to New York science teacher Matthew Malina.

"We're given a $200 (pound;112) allowance for the whole year, which is enough to cover paper and notebooks, so if you want to do extra stuff it comes out of your own pocket," he says. "To have tricks that cost next to nothing is incredible; that's what I came for."

That and the opportunity to be big in Japan.

Tips on educational experiments can be downloaded from archived Iron Science Teacher shows at: www.exploratorium.eduiron_science. Four places for the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute are reserved for international (non-US) teachers each year. See: www.exploratorium.eduti. Website for Iron Chef fans: www.ironfans.net

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