Growing up, young Bill Nye’s life was altered by a short black-and-white educational film on physics.
Made at the University of Toronto in 1960, “Frames of Reference” features professors Patterson Hume and Donald Ivey discussing physics-based concepts in humorous and mind-bending ways. In the opening segment, viewers are asked to consider which of the two professors is actually upside down.
“That film changed my life,” said Nye, in a recent interview with Salish Current. “When we were in class, and there was a film, it was always a great thing.” Nye grew up to be a science educator engineer, comedian, television presenter, author and inventor.
Even better than fascinating films, emphasize both local science teachers and Nye, is the chance for students to do science themselves and to learn how to evaluate evidence.
Nye — a Cornell-trained mechanical engineer who worked for Boeing in the 1970s and ‘80s — is best-known for his 1990s PBS show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” which launched fun science learning into the homes and classrooms of millions of young Americans.
Since his show premiered on Seattle’s KCTS-TV in 1993, Nye has become a world-famous promoter of science education for schoolchildren and the general public. This includes his longtime spokesperson role for ExploraVision: a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) science competition for American and Canadian students in grades K through 12.
Put on by the National Science Teaching Association and corporate sponsor Toshiba, the competition asks students to improve existing technologies to solve real-world issues. Among the winners that impressed Nye this year: a middle school team from Ontario that created a concept to make clothing fabric from fungi, using the mycelium tendrils found in mushroom roots.
ExploraVision is an excellent example of what Nye calls informal science education — the science lessons that take place outside a classroom.
“Half of what you learn about science is outside the classroom,” he said. “That’s where the Science Guy show fit in so well.”
Muddy, slimy glory
As both ExploraVision and the Science Guy show make clear, students are especially engaged when they have hands-on, in-the-field engagement with scientific concepts.
Lorri Swanson — a 4th-grade instructor at Lopez Elementary School — has found that to be the case during her 16 years as a teacher.
“Everything that the kids were learning about in science, I made sure that they could touch it and mess with it and manipulate it and see how it worked,” she said.
Swanson began as a garden science teacher, flipping compost and digging holes to help kids learn about microorganisms in soil. When she transitioned into the classroom as a 3rd- through 5th-grade instructor, her connections with salmon conservation group Long Live the Kings helped her acquire salmon eggs from their Orcas Island hatchery, which her students then watched develop.
Another connection to a marine biologist helped Swanson get whole salmon, in all their slimy glory, for classroom dissections. Through the Bureau of Land Management’s Hands on the Land program, Swanson offers canoe trips for her 4th-graders, helping them learn about local newts and the importance of treating public lands with respect.
She is also responsible for building a STEAM fair (the added ‘A’ stands for arts) that fosters scientific investigation on subjects they find personally interesting.
“They really get a real solid understanding of how to do an engineering project and how to do a science experiment,” Swanson said. “It’s a lot of work … but it’s really gratifying for the kids because they feel so proud of their work.”
Blow it up!
Nye said that he finds elementary school students to be particularly effective at being scientists.
“An elementary kid is asking all these questions, trying to learn about the world around him or her,” he said. “I tell elementary teachers all the time, do science! Kids love science. Blow stuff up.”
Greg Hertel, a retired science instructor from Friday Harbor who spent 29 years teaching middle and high school on San Juan Island, definitely supports making science explosive.
“I blew up as much … as I could,” he said.
As a way of teaching his students ballistics in physics class, Hertel would have students meet him at a friend’s property. The friend had taken a large argon bottle and turned it into a mortar that fired bowling balls.
Students were asked to time the duration of the ball’s trajectory after being loudly propelled out of the bottle like a cannonball — which they did after getting over the initial shock of the explosion. Afterwards, they went back to the classroom, calculating how fast, how far and how much energy the projectile had.
“All the things that we’d studied on paper, they were able to take and start doing,” he said. “There’s got to be some doing.”
Hertel also had a final project in his chemistry class where students built rockets, figuring out the best propellants to launch their vessels skyward. One year, a student aided by online research created a fuel mixture powerful enough to propel his rocket completely over the grade school building, Hertel said. The student went on to become a chemical engineer who helped with Lopez Island’s annual 4th of July pyrotechnics display.
Stars, caves, the sea
Hertel also took more conventional field trips around San Juan, hosting star-gazing parties on local beaches for astronomy class and exploring small solution caves , formed by the action of acidic water on the island’s abundant limestone, for geology curricula. These kinds of experiences, he said, often leave memories and knowledge that greatly outlasts what’s read in a textbook.
“It’s good to have a mix,” he said. “You’ve got to have some formal as well as some informal education.” Beth Insera, a 6th-grade science instructor at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham, said each grade at her school has general class field trips in which science-based education can be incorporated.
These trips have included trips on Bellingham Bay aboard the Snow Goose, an ocean-going ship where students conduct water quality testing, and to the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.
“They’re kind of a nice spark for kids who decide that they want to get into the sciences later in life,” she said. “You can kind of see that happen to them on the trips.”
In real life
While some students find early passions for particular subjects and stick with them, others are inspired to go in directions they initially thought unlikely. Hertel, who has seen both instances firsthand, believes students should often be gently persuaded to try those uncommon directions.
Twice, he’s received letters from former students who were “forced” to take his geology course because the biology course they wanted was full. After high school, they stayed focused on what they learned in his course.
“One of the girls wound up getting a bachelor of science in geology,” Hertel said. “The other girl wound up becoming a gemologist and using the stuff (she) learned on minerals. They both said, ‘I never would have done that if I hadn’t taken the class’.”
At the university level, one local group that attracts students from a wide variety of backgrounds is Western Washington University’s Formula SAE club, better known as WWU Racing.
Each year, the student club budgets, designs and builds a small race car to take part in a national competition put on by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). About 30 members are active now, and the team recently returned from this year’s competition in Michigan with Viking 64, the electric vehicle they designed during the last academic year.
There’s no college credit to be gained by participating, but doing so provides an incredible team-based experience that is often a valuable résumé booster for graduating seniors.
Megan Ellis, WWU Racing’s new project manager, said that to the best of her knowledge, they’re the only club to successfully recruit students from every college on campus.
“We have a music major, we have an English major; we’ve got everything in between,” said Ellis, a 20-year-old environmental science major who joined due to a background in go-cart and spec racing (where all the cars are the same make with the same specs). While it’s rare for students to switch their majors after joining, Ellis said the club has often helped engineering-minded underclassmen figure out what they want their major concentration to be.
Though it’s their focus, the team’s main priority isn’t producing a race car, Ellis said. Rather, it’s about producing a cohesive team of students who’ll gain valuable hands-on experience in leadership, problem-solving, teamwork, communication and other skillsets.
That’s especially valuable to employers. Ellis said the four seniors who graduated this year each landed jobs within three weeks of graduation. The team’s technical director graduated with an electrical engineering degree and was hired as a project manager for an electric vehicle startup, something that Ellis said might not have happened without the Formula SAE project experience.
At the Northwest Indian College’s Lummi campus, the college’s “Space Center” grabbed NASA’s attention several years ago when several students and a faculty member decided to begin launching water bottle rockets.
Natasha Brennan, NWIC’s public information officer, said the club is still active and attended First Nations Launch, a high-powered rocket competition, in Wisconsin this April. An engineering faculty member is leading the students, and the college hopes to create a pre-engineering Associate of Arts degree.
Hertel has also seen how mechanically adept students have excelled. Several of his students would often hang out after school, and he would try to give them all something to do. He’d give one student pieces of broken equipment, which she would then fix on her own and return several days later. She went on to become an electrician, while two other students became automotive engineers.
Science, fact … and fiction
Scientific presenters like Veritasium and Physics Girl, available online, have made science and math-based learning vibrant and easily consumable, and not just for students of innovative teachers. While that’s great for science literacy, the internet’s large amount of bad information — and the inability of many people to determine fact from fiction — worries Nye.
As we grapple with disinformation, misinformation and the growing presence of artificial intelligence and climate change, Nye said that critical-thinking skills and proper understanding of such areas is essential — not just for those in STEM-based fields, but for the common voter who elects lawmakers capable of addressing such concerns.
“I say all the time, if we could teach one thing in any class — mathematics, language arts, geography, science — it would be what people nowadays call ‘critical thinking,'” he said. “The most important thing in the world, if you’re asking me, is to foster a scientifically literate society so that we can address these … threats to our existence as a species.”
To Nye, a member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, critical thinking means being able to make reasonable determinations about the worthiness of sources and claims.
“When someone claims that astrology is true, you want people to be able to evaluate them,” he said. “When someone says masks do not prevent the spread of COVID indoors, you want people to be able to evaluate that claim. This takes training in the scientific method, and it also takes some rudimentary understanding or interaction with philosophy — the so-called justified true belief.”
As Salish Current has reported, local instructors at all grade levels are incorporating digital literacy and fact-checking.
Elementary students on Lopez Island, Swanson said, are taught to consider how they know something is a fact and not just an assumption, and Insera said most teachers she knows are ensuring their students are trained to be critical consumers of information.
And though Hertel retired from public school teaching before the smartphone and deep-fakes, he points out that modern technology is not all that’s needed for quality education.
“Education takes an interested student and a teacher who knows what he or she is talking about,” he said. “The technology can help, it can’t replace.”
Looking ahead, Nye said that better financial investment in teachers and their classrooms is the best way to further ensure middle and high school students stay plugged into science and critical thinking.
That’s tough, though, when districts are slashing budgets: Insera said Shuksan’s middle school trips are likely to be eliminated under the latest Bellingham School District budget proposals.
Still, despite a world where passion often runs up against practicality, Nye remains optimistic about the next generation of science learners and practitioners.
“Young people are not going to put up with (the status quo),” he said. “When people my age ‘age out’ — also known as die — young people are going to make good decisions.”
— Reported by Matt Benoit