Science and Math With an 'Edge' -- Learning Is Best When It's Messy and Unpredictable

By Larry Bock
Founder and organizer, USA Science & Engineering Festival

The world runs on science and math, but let's face it, to get this across effectively to young students we sometimes have to get a little, well... messy.

No one knows this better than math and science author Sean Connolly who's gained a reputation with kids and teachers alike for breathing life into such potentially stuffy scientific tenets as Boyle's Law and Bernoulli's Principle through hands-on demonstrations and experiments that involve everything from potato guns and cola geysers to film-canister rockets and floating ping-pong balls. The result? Rapt attention and plenty of oohs and ahhs from students, in addition to an experience that illustrates first-hand in unforgettable ways to them how science and math relate to the real world.

If we are to excite and inspire kids in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) -- including motivating the next generation of innovators -- we have to learn to begin exploring new and creative interactive approaches such as Connolly's. Science has suffered too long from a public-relations problem perpetuated by images of nerdy researchers in white coats spouting boring formulas and theories, he says.

A full-time writer but not a trained scientist, Connolly has authored 65 educational books. He knows that in reaching kids, you often have to think like a kid, and sometimes this means getting messy, dirty and unpredictable. It's little wonder that his arsenal of science tricks and experiments are wildly popular -- a repertoire that also includes showing children how to grow a Frankenstein hand, turn milk into stone, produce a cola geyser with Mentos candy, burn ice, and make homemade lightning.

One only has to glance at the titles of Connolly's books for children in science and math -- such as his most recent work that is due out in March through Workman Publishing called The Book of Perfectly Perilous Math: 24 Death-Defying Challenges for Young Mathematicians -- to realize that this writer likes his content on the "edgy" side. The Book of Perfectly Perilous Math offers "64 daring experiments for young scientists," while his other well-known works in this realm are: The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science (Workman, 2008), and The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science (Workman, 2010), winner of the Science Books & Film's "Excellence in Science Writing" award for hands-on science.

He once said: "It's a terrible loss for children who didn't get the opportunity to get messy and dirty and get into a little bit of trouble. It's a good way to view the world -- through science eyes."

Connolly is among a prestigious lineup of 36 Featured Authors in STEM who will excite and engage young readers April 28-29, 2012 in Washington, DC at the USA Science & Engineering Festival and Book Fair hosted by Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest celebration of science and engineering.

The Book Fair, with its Featured Authors and book signings, is designed to demonstrate something that both kids and adults tend to forget: that science is fun and is not just something practiced in laboratories -- it's part of everything we see and do each day. Moreover, the fair gives students the chance to meet and hear some of the best-selling science writers in the country, which not only inspires kids to connect with science through reading, but helps build a strong foundation for science motivation in the classroom and for science literacy into adulthood.

In reflecting on his upcoming appearance at the Festival Book Fair, Connolly, with his characteristic wit and wry sense of humor, also provides a brief preview of his new book when he writes:

An appearance at the Festival gets us authors out of our garrets, blinking as we meet the real people out there. And it's those real people -- particularly the young ones -- who make it all so much fun.

I can draw them into my world of bad puns ("science friction," "give peas a chance") but also into the wider world of science. And on "Pi Day" (March 14) of this year, Workman [his publisher] will publish The Book of Perfectly Perilous Math: 24 Death-Defying Challenges for Young Mathematicians.

Writing it has given me the chance to replace those old "two trains leave Chicago" word problems with challenges that have real bite. Speaking of which, if one vampire drinks the blood of two humans at each full moon, turning them into vampires, how long will it take for Washington to be populated by vampires (and don't say it is already)?

No ordinary event, the Book Fair is part of the Festival's finale Expo weekend celebration scheduled at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The Expo -- replete with a bevy of hands-on excitement in science, including 3,000 exhibits and 150 stage demonstrations -- will culminate a month-long series of nationwide activities by the Festival to inspire the next generation of innovators.

At the Book Fair, each author will give a 45-minute presentation on his or her work, followed with a question and answer period and book signing. Books by these writers can be purchased at the fair and online through the Festival Book Fair website.

In addition to Connolly, here is just a sampling of other esteemed Featured Authors that visitors can expect to hear and meet at the Book Fair:

Mathematics. Educator Rebecca Klemm is an advocate for numerical literacy among young learners. Her latest work, NumbersAlive!, demystifies numbers and mathematical concepts for students of all ages by helping them discover how numbers are an essential component of everything. Pendred (Penny) Noyce is a physician and a founding trustee of the Noyce Foundation, which supports mathematics and science education by supporting through enriching, hands-on experiences. She is author of the acclaimed children's book Lost in Lexicon: An Adventure in Words and Numbers.

Engineering. In writing Is There an Engineer Inside You? Celeste Baine says this is the book she wishes she would have had when entered the profession. The book, now in its third edition, provides insight into 32 different fields of engineering.

Space Exploration. Retired NASA engineer Homer Hickam called upon his childhood love of building rockets to pen the #1 New York Times bestseller Rocket Boys, which was made into the acclaimed Hollywood movie October Sky.

Books by Science Reporters. Joe Palca and Joel Achenbach, as authors and full-time science journalists, bring interesting perspectives. A science correspondent for NPR since 1992, Palca is the co-author of the 2011 book, Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us. Achenbach covers science for the Washington Post and is also a regular science contributor to National Geographic. He is author of A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, an account of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Excitement. Engineers Ken Denmead and William Gurstelle have a talent for encouraging kids to dive in and get their hands dirty with projects that make science exciting. Denmead is author of The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists, while Gurstelle, a DIY building enthusiast in catapults and flamethrowers, is author of The Practical Pyromaniac.

Medicine. Physician Robin Cook has long thrilled readers with such novels as Year of the Intern, Coma and Chromosome 6. His latest book, Death Benefit, deals with Wall Street greed and medical malfeasance. Renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Alfredo QuiÃones-Hinojosa, in Becoming Dr. Q, chronicles his amazing life story of rising from being a migrant worker to becoming one of the top physicians in his field.

Physics. The author of such works as Knocking on Heaven's Door, Harvard's Lisa Randall is among the most influential theoretical physicists today, with a penchant for explaining her topics in clear, exciting ways. In the same vein, former MIT physics professor Walter Lewin is introducing kids to the wonder of physics through For the Love of Physics.

Science With a Twist. Creator of that iconic, unforgettable periodic table of elements poster seen in TV shows MythBusters and Hannah Montana, Theodore Gray is author of such bestsellers as The Elements and Mad Science.

For more on the Book Fair and its Featured Authors and appearance schedules, click here.

Join us at the Festival and Book Fair when we put an "edge" on science, technology, engineering and mathematics to excite students in STEM and inspire the next generation of innovators.

Follow Larry Bock on Twitter.

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Those above mentioned efforts to make Science and Math more recognizable and more effectively-educated to people especially kids, are very valuable. Those are a breakthrough that have been long awaited by humanity.

About learning, in my opinion, Learning Is Best When It's Reality-Based, Real-Life-Oriented, Personal, All-Experiential, Living, and Transforming! Therefore, IT IS MESSY and UNPREDICTABLE.
I Hope that This Breakthrough Movement on Science, Math, Learning, and Education goes on more massively!

Thanks Mario and wonderful opinion on learning!

By Carly O'Brien (not verified) on 13 Apr 2012 #permalink

I completely agree that teachers and instructors should not be afraid to let their students get "messy" during science instruction. Research has shown that "hands-on" learning is the best way for children to learn, especially in a subject such as science. Seeing, feeling,and watching science before student's eyes will make them dig deeper with their thoughts and discussion.

However, it is understandable that coming up with these hands-on activities are more time consuming for the teachers to find supplies, set up the lesson, etc. When it comes down to it, it is well worth it! There is nothing worse than students doing worksheet after worksheet. Why not go the extra mile and impact students and let them EXPLORE with hands on learning?!

By Katelyn Schwartz (not verified) on 01 May 2012 #permalink