Calling All Science Educators!

8:51 minutes

a cross cut image, with an asian male on the left and a white woman on the right standing in front of mountains. there is a green peel in the left corner
2018 SciFri Educator Collaborators, Randy Otaka (left) and Katie Brown (right). Credit: Randy Otaka/Katie Brown

The Science Friday Educator Collaborative supports creative, highly motivated, and dedicated STEM educators to create new multimedia-driven education resources. We’re currently looking for educators to be a part of the 2019 cohort! Applications are open now

When did you first get the science bug? For me, it was my professor Tom Carlson who taught a summer class about medical ethnobotany. Seeing him chase bumblebees around the University of California, Berkeley botanical garden and describe how they fit into a foxglove flower was a life-changing experience. And this personal story is not unique—many of us can probably name a science teacher, professor, parent, or educator who got us hooked on science. That’s why education is such an important part of what we do at Science Friday. We know that’s where the spark for science often ignites.

It’s also why we team up with science educators across the country in our Science Friday Educator Collaborative Program, in which educators work with SciFri staff to develop resources for science learners everywhere. Two of this year’s Educator Collaborators, Randy Otaka and Katie Brown guide us through their creative process of designing hands-on STEM activities—from modeling camouflaging cephalopod skin with cocktail umbrellas to using design thinking to better engineer shelters for disaster relief. And if you are an educator and this sounds like something you want to do, applications are now open for the 2019 program! Science Friday’s education director Ariel Zych joins Ira to tell you how to be a part of the next cohort.

Related Links

  • Meet all the Educator Collaborators of the 2018 cohort and check out their resources.
  • Explore Randy Otaka’s resource on cephalopod skin and how they camouflage.
  • Check out Katie Brown’s activity on designing disaster relief shelters.
  • Learn more about SciFri’s Educator Collaborative and view past cohorts here.

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Segment Guests

Ariel Zych

Ariel Zych is Science Friday’s director of audience. She is a former teacher and scientist who spends her free time making food, watching arthropods, and being outside.

Katie Brown

Katie Brown is a science educator in both middle school and high school classrooms at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, Hawaii. When she’s not launching potato cannons or model rockets from the field behind her classroom, she can be found leading a group of teenagers in search of moose calves on the Allagash River of northern Maine. She believes that science is everywhere and  is determined to explore it all with her students.

Randy Otaka

Randy Otaka is an elementary school special education teacher and robotics coach for Wahiawa Elementary School in Wahiawa, Hawaii. He has a passion for STEM education and implements interactive and engaging lessons, such as using Minecraft to model the cardiovascular system to creating scale model solar system orbital paths.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Next up, where did you get your first science bug? You know, the moment you knew that this science stuff is pretty cool? I want to study it. I want to do it. I want to teach it. 

Well, for many of us, it was a teacher, someone who could translate the magic of physics or botany or space into something you could understand. For me, it was a Mrs. Pfeiffer, Evelyn Pfeiffer, the late Evelyn Pfeiffer, my eighth grade science teacher who had a science club after school every week, and we would do incredible little science experiments and bring them home. I did one that almost burned down my mom’s bathroom. Well, I don’t want to talk about that too much. 

Well then, that’s why education is so important to us at Science Friday, because we know that that’s where the spark often begins, and it’s why we’re teaming up with you, science educators, across the country on the latest season of our Science Friday Educator Collaborative Program. And here to talk about it is Ariel Zych, Science Friday’s education director. We’re going to try to get Ariel on the line, but until we do, I’d like to bring on a couple of this year’s educators who can give us a better idea of the sorts of projects they are working on. 

Katie Brown is a science teacher at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, Hawaii. Welcome to Science Friday. 

KATIE BROWN: Thank you very much, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Randy Otaka is a fourth and fifth grade special education teacher and robotics advisor at Wahiawa Elementary School in Wahiawa, Hawaii. Welcome to Science Friday. 

RANDY OTAKA: Thank you, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: Randy, let me start with you. Tell us about your project. It involved modeling cephalopod skin. 

RANDY OTAKA: Yes. So I wanted to have a student model some of the structures found within the first layer of cephalopod skin, which is the chromatophore layer. So for your listeners, chromatophores are sort of like human abdomen is like balloons filled with pigment or paint, and in a relaxed state, they’re shriveled up and they don’t take up much area. But when stimulated, they can be expanded to become a larger spot of color. And cephalopods have millions of them, so they can use them to generate all sorts of patterns in the first layer of skin. 

But the lesson was intended to have students model the chromatophore layer. 

IRA FLATOW: And how did they do that? What did they use? 

RANDY OTAKA: Well, we decided to use cocktail umbrellas. You know, there are not too many everyday items that have that movement profile where you have a simple input signal that generates something that causes something to expand and contract. Umbrellas are perfect for that. And cocktail umbrellas come in all sorts of colors. Unfortunately, they don’t come in brown, and that’s actually one of the colors of chromatophores, but we worked around it. 

And anyway, basically we used cocktail umbrellas to model the opening and closing of all the chromatophores in that first level of skin. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s very creative. Very creative. Let me bring in another creative person, Ariel Zych, our Science Friday education director. Hey, we finally got you on, Ariel. 

ARIEL ZYCH: Hey, good to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: Tell us tell us about the collaborative and what’s going on. 

ARIEL ZYCH: Well, as Randy mentioned, I think teachers, they come up with these great ideas. Randy’s idea of these umbrellas to represent chromatophores is incredible. And what we at Science Friday wanted to do is really invite educators to flex their creative muscles and flex their instructional muscles to co-create with one another brand new, innovative stem resources for the classroom. And as I mentioned, if you are a teacher– this may not be that surprising– teachers do this all the time. It’s what makes them the magic of science education. It’s just, they may not have an opportunity to do it with other people. They may not have an opportunity to have a full staff of digital producers and science journalists and a giant community of scientists to help them with that. 

And so what the Science Friday Educator Collaborative does is it’s a nationally competitive program, and it pairs really extraordinary teachers with that community, with Science Friday staff, with another posse of really interesting and enthusiastic teachers. And so they develop these resources that are not only beautiful, but they’re free to access, they’re incredibly engaging, and they’re very low cost to implement. And it’s my pleasure to help work with that program. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Ariel Zych and Katie Brown and Randy Otaka. Randy told us about his project with cocktail umbrellas. Katie, you’re a science teacher at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, Hawaii. Tell us about your project. 

KATIE BROWN: Sure. My project is actually based on climate change, so interesting that we’re on today to talk about that. But what I have is a resource for students to develop disaster relief structures that can be used after a fire, flood. It actually was inspired after the Kilauea volcano eruption out here. But what the students do in my project is they basically research structural engineering and architecture and talk about the shapes that make buildings strong. And then they build a prototype disaster relief structure that can fold completely flat for transport, and then be popped up into place wherever it’s needed. 

So they basically build this prototype that they can store on the back of a flatbed truck or on a pallet, and then they have five minutes to put it into place. And it has to hold enough weight for a family, and it has to be strong and have ventilation and be raised up off the ground to prevent future flooding. And then what they do is they use their math skills to scale it up and figure out what it would look like if it was full size. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s terrific. Ariel, we’ve got just a couple examples here. You’ve got a whole bunch more in the projects, right? 

ARIEL ZYCH: We do. It’s absolutely wonderful. So we’ve got teachers from all across the country. And you know, as I mentioned, it’s that diversity that’s really extraordinary. So Molly Adams, who’s an informal educator with the Wildlife Conservation Society developed a virtual coral reef health assessment so that students can virtually dive into different coral reefs around the world, establish whether they are bleaching, and how that influences biodiversity. Jeff Grant from Downers Grove High School, North High School in Illinois, Downers Grove, Illinois, he made a resource that was inspired by one of our videos about the Fibonacci sequence. And he had his students go through, I don’t know, 50 or some-odd X-rays to establish whether the digits within a vertebrate hand conformed to a Fibonacci sequence or ratio, and if that influences whether they can grasp objects. 

So if you’re thinking as you hear these things that wow, these are really off the wall and totally cool ways of getting at scientific concepts, you’re right. You know, and when we work with all these teachers to make sure that their standards align, they’re hitting really core concepts in the curriculum, so even though they sound kind of weird, totally original and different, there’s still building really essential science literacy and science engineering practices. 

IRA FLATOW: So how do teachers get involved if they want to get part of this project? 

ARIEL ZYCH: Please apply. It is an awesome program. So you visit sciencefriday.com/educator. There’s just a few questions about yourself and about your teaching philosophy. But then we really ask you to get right to it and pitch us and your application and idea that you have for implementing some cool science concept inspired by Science Friday media. And that pitch is really what levels the playing field between educators that are newer, earlier in their careers, and educators that have been doing this for a long time. And those applications are due by January 4, so don’t delay. We’ve given you two holidays to get them in. 

And you know, and there are perks, too. We’ve got just a small stipend, $500 for accepted applicants. But I think beyond that, it’s the peer group that you’ll get to be a part of, and also working directly with Science Friday. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Thank you, Ariel Zych, Science Friday’s education director. And thank you to Katie Brown and Randy Otaka, who are both the science teachers. Thank you very much for taking time. And good luck with your projects. And have a great holiday. And you can find out, as Ariel said, all the details on how to sign up at sciencefriday.com/educator.

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