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Science is Spectacular: Sharing the Excitement with Students (and Families)

Dave Emmerson
Mission Principles: Compelling & Connected Academic Program, Integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics, Pursuit of the Balance Between Rigor & Joy
Pacific Ridge AP Chemistry teacher Dave Emmerson talks about bringing science to life through demonstrations, and the history behind the Science Extravaganza! event he founded during his 18 years teaching at La Costa Canyon High School. Pacific Ridge school will host its first Science Extravaganza! on May 20th.

Whenever someone finds out that I am a teacher, they inevitably ask me what I teach. My answer has always been, “I teach students.” The follow up question, “Yes, but what do you teach them?” brings the reply, “I teach them about themselves, how they learn and what motivates them.” Once they figure that out, AP chemistry, or any subject, becomes elementary.
Over the years, many of my former students have come back to visit and talk about how much they enjoyed college, how they chose their careers and how my class prepared them for success. When our discussion turns to what exactly they remember learning, it is quickly clear that they don’t remember specifics at all. However, they do remember learning a lot and enjoying the learning.
In these conversations, one thing always comes up. My students remember the demonstrations that were a regular part of my class. They recall being able to better understand abstract concepts when applied to a tangible chemical change occurring right in front of them. The best demonstrations stimulated all their senses - sight, sound, smell, tactile feeling - and sparked their curiosity to know more. Above all, demonstrations made the classroom environment fun. My visitors may not remember specifically which concepts they grasped way back when, but they all remember anticipating coming to class each day, as they couldn’t wait to find out what they would experience next.
Over the course of my career, “vigorous” demonstrations have become more and more a part of my chemistry classes. I collected comic books, baseball cards and stamps when I was younger; now I collect demonstrations that elicit excitement, curiosity and delight in my students. With tongue in cheek I ask, “Should we blow something up, just because we (safely) can?”  I would argue that the answer is a resounding yes!
Just as small classroom demonstrations increase the motivation to learn science and increase the clarity with which students understand complex concepts, large-scale science demonstrations can foster a desire to know more. Once you have the attention of a large group of people, they too, are susceptible to becoming converts to science. They may just start using the “way of reason” to help them understand our universe.
The idea of sharing science demonstrations with the greater community around my school came to me through two events.  The first was at a state science teachers’ conference in a session about setting demonstrations to music. The session resonated with me; it was clear that a whole other part of the mind was being engaged when music was added to the equation. I added that idea to my “collection.”
The second event came soon afterwards, in an aisle of the local grocery store. Two parents were discussing how their child’s school was so much more “academic” than the other, surrounding schools. I couldn’t resist asking how they decided on this. Was it test scores? Academic competitions? College acceptances? Was there any data to back it up?  It turns out that it was only a perception – one that was being magnified by consistent repetition in grocery aisles, on soccer field sidelines and at dinner parties around town.
To give more people an opportunity to make informed decisions about the quality of science being taught at my school and to share the excitement of the field with them, the Science Extravaganza! was born. That’s right, a theatrical presentation of science demonstrations, set to music, with dramatic staging and lighting, all narrated by chemistry students. Many people think of a “science show” as the classic science fair, where academic projects are on display with graphs and charts in a large room with tables as people walk around. But instead, families saw something closer to Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group. If the chemical reactions didn’t, the music certainly knocked their socks off!
Pacific Ridge will host its first Science Extravaganza! on May 20th, at 7 PM at the La Costa Canyon High School theater. Pacific Ridge students, in collaboration with the La Costa Canyon Chem Club, will be putting on the show.
I invite you to come to a science event you will definitely remember. You will see presentations on quantum mechanics, reaction kinetics, acidic anhydrides, and much more. We’ll have to see if you learn something more than: Science is Fun! and that Pacific Ridge students are smart and learning a lot of great science. But, even if that is all you come away with, it will be well worth your time.
We may even blow something up, just because we can!