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Danville Express

Newsfront - August 21, 2009

Danville teacher engages in 'oily' contest

Iron Science Teacher competition adds fun to education

by Geoff Gillette

Teachers are used to performing before an audience, but usually with a lesson plan. So what happens when they're given 10 minutes to plan out a lesson and come up with a demonstration?

This is the "Iron Science Teacher" competition. Educators from throughout the Bay Area- even from around the country- take part in the Friday activity at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The program, based on the Japanese television show "Iron Chef," has been going on for 10 years as a part of the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute.

Greenbrook Elementary School science teacher Mark Pelham had his turn in the hot seat July 10. Pelham was taking part in the Teacher's Institute, when his call to glory came.

"The Teacher's Institute is a great opportunity," he said. "It's a lot of give and take with the instructors, tweaking ideas, trying to develop a new curriculum."

During one of the Friday sessions, the group was discussing electrostatic reactions when Pelham mentioned the effect that electricity can have on an oil and cornstarch mixture.

"The next thing I knew, the director of the 'Iron Science Teacher' was telling me I had to come on and do a demonstration of it," he said.

Pelham and fellow teacher Lauren Bailey cobbled together the few ingredients they would need for a quick demonstration of the process.

"All of the competitions have to use a secret ingredient. Our secret ingredient was oil," he explained.

The pair mixed oil and cornstarch into a thin paste called oobleck, which has properties of both a solid and a liquid. Pelham rubbed a balloon on Bailey's hair to build up a static charge and then started pouring the oobleck out of its container. When the charged balloon came close to the oobleck, the flow stopped, with some of the fluid suspended from the lip of the beaker.

"When you get the charge close to the fluid the cornstarch molecules line up, blocking the oil," Pelham explained. "The oil is what is giving it its liquid properties. You pull the balloon away and it starts flowing again."

While Pelham took third place (he was beaten out by a pair of teachers in '70s outfits who showed how to make lava lamps) he said it was a great time and one that left him with a lot of great ideas.

"We don't get to go to science conferences and things like that much anymore, so doing things like this really helps bring fresh ideas into the classroom," he said.

Pelham also said programs like "Iron Science Teacher" demonstrate just how important science education is, especially in the lower grades.

"Science is really important in a lot of ways. As we become more of a technologically oriented society I think it's really important to have an understanding of what's going on around you," he stated.

He added that having projects and demonstrations really helps students to learn and retain information. "They're so eager to learn and so eager to get their hands on stuff," he said. "Later on when they have a question on a test they can say, 'Oh yeah, that's something we did in class.'"

See Pelham's "Iron Science Teacher" competition at www.exploratorium.com/iron_science/index.php.