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Steve Spangler: Adventures in STEM Learning

Updated: May 28, 2023

Building Wonder and Discovery Through Engagement and Connection with "America's Science Teacher"

Host: Dr Diane Jackson Schnoor

Wonder, discovery, engagement -- and we don't blow anything up! Spend an hour with the incomparable Steve Spangler as we discuss ways to build connections between science, STEM, and literacy across the curriculum. You'll leave with a renewed sense of joy and possibility -- and an eagerness to play! It's definitely a #bestdayever kind of podcast.

With more than 1,600 television appearances and multiple Emmy awards to his credit, Steve is also a regular guest on the Ellen DeGeneres Show where she dubbed him America’s Science Teacher. Steve’s catalog of videos featured on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and now TikTok have more than 1 billion views (yes, that's BILLION with a B), and his books and online experiments are widely used by parents and educators to increase student engagement and inspire young scientists to learn more about STEM-based careers. Steve's show, DIY Sci, is currently in its sixth season. But Steve Spangler feels most at home when he’s on stage sharing insights and creating those amazing experiences audiences remember for a lifetime.

Steve brings over 25 years of experience (5,500+ presentations) to the platform every time he speaks. In July 2010, members of the National Speakers Association inducted Steve into the prestigious Speaker Hall of Fame. He is among an elite group of only 224 professional speakers in the world to receive this honor. In 2022, Spangler joined the faculty at High Point University (High Point, North Carolina) as the STEM Educator in Residence. Steve works with students and faculty to create transformational experiences that inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

On a personal note, I am honored to call Steve my friend and colleague. I've followed his work for years and incorporated his hands-on approach to work I did with summer camps and museum education programs. We met in November 2020 as part of an on-line Zoom professional development. He got me to dump water on my head all in the name of science learning -- see the video for that glorious moment -- and we connected over the notion of engagement and building connection across the curriculum. When I launched Dr. Diane's Adventures in Learning, I relied heavily on Steve's support, mentorship, and encouragement. He and his fabulous team, Carly Reed and Bryan Higgins, worked with me to produce the Beyond Ever After online video course. Steve also invited me to speak at his signature event, Science in the Rockies. I have learned from his experiences and been fortunate enough to see him electrify crowds of teachers in numerous professional development environments -- online and in person. I am so fortunate to call him my mentor and friend, and I am very excited to share this conversation about the importance of engagement and connection.

How do we build connections in a way that places science front and center -- and is meaningful for students and teachers? [00:51]

Connections is a huge buzzword these days. We talk about wanting to connect with kids, to build real life connections. Steve shares insights from his high school graduation speech where he talked about the value of connections. "I thought it (the speech) was good," he says. "I had a little magic trick that went along with it. So I've always thought, well, you've got to build connections. But now at the ripe old age of 55, I sit here and I look at everything that's good that's happened in my life is a result of a connection, right? And the only way to connect is to engage. And when you choose to engage, as I often say, you get a front row seat to the greatest experiences life has to offer."

"If It Gets to the Dinner Table, You Win." [03:14]

We talked about connections, engagement, and experiences -- and the sweet spot where they intersect that creates a "best day ever" for students (and teachers). I asked Steve to elaborate on the kind of ah-ha experience where the child is engaged and brings it home because they are excited to share.

Steve shared some context for the phrase, if it gets to the dinner table, you win. Once upon a time, early in his career, he was called to the principal's office after he had spent the day before doing his Halloween science show in all of the elementary classrooms. "There were explosions, possibly, maybe a fire, whatever," he says. "I got called in and we discussed the exploding pumpkin and walking on glass and the screaming gummy bear that caught on fire and whatever else, right?"

Turns out, the dad who had come in to talk to the principal revealed that he was there because his daughter had such a great time that she couldn't stop talking about it at the dinner table. "And as my principal walked me out, she said what did we learn today?" Steve remembers. "And I said, well I won't do the exploding pumpkin. She goes, no, I didn't say that. Well I should probably put something down if I'm going to do elephant’s toothpaste. No, she says, what did we learn today. If it gets to the dinner table, you win. If a child leaves the classroom and is so excited about what you did in that classroom that he or she will share that at home freely at the table without having to be asked what did you do in school today, then you know that you've created an experience."

It's the very first time I really understood the difference between activities and experiences. And the best way it was put to me was activities are transactional. I do an activity, you give me your attention. I do a better activity, you might give me a little bit more attention. You might even take out a piece of notebook paper and write something down if the activity is good, but experiences, well, experiences are transformational. Experiences have the ability to change the way you see, feel, think and react. So experiences are extremely powerful. As a teacher, it's the one thing that we have in our arsenal that I think is more powerful than anything else that we can do. Because when we create experiences, kids connect and engage at the highest level. They become part of their own learning. In order for it to be an experience, it has to be a two way street.
How do we build connections, engagement, and experiences? [06:44]

You don't build connections and engagement and experiences without a person being involved.

Steve points out that building connections, engagement, and experiences requires genuine human connections. When you remember the teachers you connected with, you know that something resonated, the vibration worked. And every person doesn't resonate with the same frequency. He offers an analogy where he compares different teachers to singing glasses, where you add water to wine glasses (or something stronger for an after hours teachers program). "Put your finger in the glasses, go around the rim and they make sound," he says. "Not every glass vibrates or resonates at the same frequency. Some take more work, some take a little bit less pressure. Some have to empty out some of the water. It is difficult to do, but once you get it, it works. And guess what? The moment it works, the resonating glasses start to not work because the water starts to evaporate. A couple drips here and there..You never are at a point where it's just lather, rinse, repeat. You're never at a point where you're just like, well, I guess I can laminate that lesson plan. You're constantly tweaking it."

Connection is personal. Connection is part of that human endeavor that we have. And no class of humans is the same. And they're not the same day to day. They change from hour to hour. It's possible for a child (or an adult) to have five best day ever moments in the same lunch period.

Steve notes that best day ever moments are the things you remember at a 20 or 30 year class reunion. "I've never heard anybody say that worksheet we did in fourth grade was so awesome. It was mind changing. We had true/false, matching, multiple choice. It changed my mind. I've never heard anybody say that," he says [09:55].

He notes that people at class reunions DO still talk about Doug Hodous, the high school chemistry teacher who inspired Steve and his classmates with his amazing science demonstrations (and introduced Steve to his future wife, Renee).

[10:19] Steve Spangler: But they will go, hey, I wonder if Hodous is still alive. Do you remember when he was in the lab and it caught on fire? Those are experiences. And we didn't call them that back then, but it was more about him than it was the stoichiometry lesson that we were supposed to be learning in chemistry that day, or balancing equations, or whatever it might be. We just remember his love of chemistry and his love of science.

And if I'm supposed to fall in love with science -- and that's what my job as a teacher is, to have kids fall in love with the idea of wonder and discovering exploration -- they’ve got to see it first in me.

Steve notes that we live vicariously through people who are so passionate about what they do. He tells a story about his oldest son who is currently teaching science in middle school in the Denver Public Schools. "He's a literature major, and in high school, he never came home and talked about something great he did in chemistry class," Steve says. "That was my hope. But I'll never forget the time that we're sitting at the dinner table and he's like, so and so took us outside today. He climbed in a tree. He got up in a tree over by the tennis courts, dad. And he read a poem for us by Woodsworth. He read from the tree." Steve notes that the high school English teacher captured his son's attention because he framed it with significance, as Dr. Nido Qubein from High Point University would say. [12:18]

Great experiences are always framed with significance.
How can we help educators get excited about science and find ways to build connections across the curriculum so that it has that moment of engagement and wow and power? [14:05]

My own travels and recent workshop experiences have shown me that there is a lot of pressure on educators right now to focus on reading and math. We're coming out of the pandemic, and states and districts are looking at gaps in education and are saying we need to focus on reading and math. If you want to read more about it, The New York Times did a good analysis this week. My own observations suggest that the focus on reading and math is happening to the detriment of science and social studies. So I asked Steve to address how we can help educators get excited about science and find ways to build connections across the curriculum so that it has that moment of engagement and wow and power.

At [14:25] Steve notes that he and his team take a people, process, product approach. When providing professional development, it's important to invest in the people, then find materials that a can support them. "We have to acknowledge first that teachers are going through a tough time, it's not been great, and I don't think we as a society have been good to teachers as well," he says.

Steve shares a story about a principal who brought some teachers to Science in the Rockies, his summertime institute. At the end of the workshop, the principal, who had come with six or seven teachers, told Steve that he hoped his teachers would leave the workshop with a more integrated approach to connecting STEM across the curriculum. "He said, you know, my metric for my teachers is that I should be able to walk into their class in a couple of years and have no idea what they're teaching other than they're teaching something amazing," Steve recalls. "I don't know what the subject is. Could be math, could be social studies, could be reading. I don't know. It's so integrated."

Integrated. It's ingrained in the way that they think about crafting a lesson, that it all comes together as one. And so I think we first have to go, how can we help a classroom teacher today who's going, I don't have enough time. And when the problem is time, we have to look at integration. We have to look at how do we weave a science lesson into a reading lesson, into a writing prompt.
Building Engagement Through Social Media [18:00]

Steve Spangler shot to national prominence with the YouTube generation with the Mentos and Diet Coke video that was released when YouTube was only three months old. The wild success of that video spawned a host of imitators and launched Steve's Sick Science series. There are currently about 1800 free videos on YouTube. "That was the first example of the camera focused on the thing, not the person," Steve says. "And we did it by accident, but it worked out very well. At the end of the video, the video didn't explain how the water would rise in the container and the candle would go out or whatever. It just simply would say share in the comments below how you think this works?"

We generated thousands and thousands of comments per video. Why? Because we invited engagement. So are you telling me that I could do a demonstration in class and ask kids to write about it and they would? I think they would. Wait, don't I have writing standards that I have to meet? Don't I have nonfiction reading standards? Don't I have to have kids learn how to sequence, how to use vocabulary correctly, how to infer, how to observe, how to support an argument? We have to do all these things. Why not pick science and pick a great science experiment?

[20:09] Dr. Diane: Absolutely. And I think that when you talk about these videos, I know I love them because they involve materials you can use right in your home and right in the classroom. And I think that that's powerful for the teacher. They don't have to go out and buy a whole kit of stuff to do it with. And I know one of the things that I've loved doing with them is being able to connect them to picture books. And then you're able to build in another level of reading and connection, and there's a whole social, emotional learning aspect…

[20:39] Steve Spangler: Let’s just stop, because you're just going to gloss over that and you're going to ask another question. I have watched you completely mesmerize a room filled with teachers as you are doing your fairy tale STEM presentation, when you share with them the strategy for building a connection. A lot of people have done connections, yours truly included. But there have been key people along the way, for me, you being one of them, who have said, but if we were to do it with a little bit more meaning, if we were to connect at a higher level, have kids, engage in a higher level and actually enter into a conversation about not just the fairy tale, but the things that go into that. You take it to the next level. Dr Diane you just have to know that that's truly a superpower. And that when I watch teachers engage with you and get fired up, it's an exciting thing because you see possibility happen for teachers. Truly a transformational moment for teachers.

[21:42] Dr. Diane: And that's what I'm hoping that we're able to help more and more teachers find, is that moment of empowerment where they realize their superpower is to be able to build these connections. And it makes teaching fun again, because I think that's something that has been lost in the classroom, too, is that sense of fun. There's been so much angst and worry piled up that it's hard to have fun.

Making Teaching Fun Again [21:42]

"Anytime I hear a teacher say, we just don't have time for fun anymore, my heart goes out to go is there any way that I could help?" Steve says. "Because I can't imagine going to a job that, not every day is fun, but for goodness sakes, you’ve got to go to a job that makes you want to jump out of bed."

Steve shares wisdom from Hall of Fame Keynote Speaker Mark Scharenbroich, who told him you always leave the campsite better than how you found it. "He's a wonderful education speaker, used to speak to students and now speaks to teachers and adults all over the world," Steve says. "And Mark is brilliant from the standpoint that he realizes that the time on this earth is limited and that our job is to make enough impact so that others around us go, I didn't think about that, that makes sense. And maybe things are a little bit better for the next person who's definitely going to come along and do something better...We just have to leave it a little bit better than how we found it."

After being in education for 31 years, Steve is reaching a point where the people he started teaching with are beginning to retire. "And I always thought about teachers who retired as being really old, and now I know we really are," he laughs. He says the real reward at the end of a long career of teaching is running into students, now grown-up, who remember you and the impact you had on them.

So every day that we show up makes a huge difference, and teachers need to know that what they're doing is so impactful. They hear it, but they need to hear it again and again, especially from people who are very genuine in what they're sharing with teachers.

I recently found my third grade teacher, Mrs. Eva Ledbetter on Facebook, and she was one of those transformational teachers for me. When Steve talked about educators who really understood the power of connection, Mrs. Ledbetter immediately sprang to mind for me. She was the woman who I would have learned all of my times table six times over for her. It was just she asked you to do it, you did it. And she was one of those amazing teachers who built drama into the curriculum. We did lots of science experiments, but there was drama too. When we did our dental health unit, Mrs. Ledbetter turned it into a play. We practiced for weeks (which I now realize helped not only with the science content, but also with reading and oral communication). Plus we helped make the costumes (so arts and engineering). And then she brought people in to film the play and aired it on closed circuit TV. And all of this was done on a military base in the late 1970s and had no idea how impactful she was.[25:08]

People, Process, Product, and PRESENTATION (The 4th P) [25:49]

Steve used my example of Mrs. Ledbetter and the way she framed and connected lessons to talk about the fourth P -- presentation.

Presentation is what creates the experience. So what you just said, the key to creating that experience was somebody who added some sense of theater.

Steve notes that presentation isn't always theater, but highly effective speakers always have amazing stories that suck you in. "And so presentation is so important, and teachers many times don't get that presentation piece until they've practiced years and years and years," Steve says, "and that's perfectly fine."

But over the years, when you get comfortable enough with your content, the presentation starts to come in. You, as the person, start to come out, right? And that's what we fall in love with. We fall in love with that person, that character, that thing that is there that helps us connect.

I don't know how you change someone's life or make it to the dinner table when you're just focused on the elements of the curriculum without building those connections that make it meaningful and make it sticky so the kid will lean in.

[30:22] Dr. Diane: I’ve watched teachers lean in, both on video and in person at Science in the Rockies and some of your other workshops. And one of my favorite things to do is to sit back and watch them get engaged. And they all kind of start out a little bit shellshocked when they walk in in the morning, and then you get them doing the hands on stuff, and by the end of the day, they're like, elbowing each other out of the way to grab the supplies. They're flinging ping pong balls across the room. It gets highly competitive, but it's wonderful because you see them building those connections and finding that playful self, and I think that that's a huge part.

[31:09] Steve Spangler: I think in the world of professional development, it's a world that both you and I are deeply entrenched, we have to, part of the secret sauce is to allow them to become the kid again without them knowing it. Because if you say to them, at the very beginning, I'm going to have you be a kid, they're like, I don't want to do this. You don't say any of that at all. And they just find themselves falling into it...They might not have experienced it being presented that way before. It's just a new way to be able for them to connect with their kids.

What are the biggest surprises so far in your adventure in learning? [32:40]

Normally, in the course of a podcast interview, I'll ask someone to describe their adventures in learning. With more than 30 years in education, I encourage you to check out Steve's bio if you want more background info. I was more curious this time about the big surprises that have emerged during his storied career.

Steve notes that one of the things that surprises him every day is that despite the technological revolution that has occurred in his lifetime "you still cannot replace a human being."

But all those advancements, and it's still a teacher, the human being who builds the connection. It’s the person who shows up every single day, who's there to build meaning for those kids and to give them purpose and for them to be able to understand what that looks like and hopefully to have them find a spark.

Steve references the work of the late Dr. Peter Benson of the Search Institute in Minnesota, who said that every kid needs three things. Number one, you need a spark. Number one, you need a spark. Number two, you need somebody to champion your cause. And number three, you need to support that. And so how do you do those things? That research has inspired his thinking about the difference between training and education in the world of professional development. "I don't want to train teachers how to do something because you focus on the how," he notes. "You really want to educate because once you educate, you use those things that we talk about, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Training has a start and a stop. I'm going to start the training, and then once I'm done learning, I'm done -- the ending point. Education, there's a beginning point, and there's never an ending point, right? You just keep on learning." [37:05]

So what currently brings you joy? [42:16]

I love asking this question because joy is something the people I admire exude -- and it's a quality the world needs much more of. Steve's answers started with humor -- going to bed early -- then quickly moved to his three sons.

"I have three boys, and Jack, I mentioned our oldest, is a first year teacher," Steve says. "That brings me great joy because I get to see him at our dinner table because we're fortunate enough to have him at home still. Being able to share his trials and tribulations as a first year teacher brings me joy, brings me sadness to some extent because it's hard for him right now. And so he's going through some tough things and some rewarding things. And we have twins who are juniors in college at St. John's University of Minnesota, but one of them is in Chile, and the other one is in Rome, because it seems like that's the experiences that schools offer kids today. And so it brings me great joy to live vicariously through them and to see where they are and the excitement of their learning and letting them now lead the journey. We've made it possible to be able to go over and spend time with them so that they can lead the journey and take us around."

Another thing that continues to bring Steve joy is his adventures with his wife, Renee. "My wife Renee, who has retired, she basically ran Steve Spangler Science," he says. "It was her company. She was the president and CEO, a lot of people don't know that, but this guy was always the guy out front. I was always the guy doing the videos. I was always the guy on the road. But she was the brains behind that whole organization. So it brings me great joy to see her doing what she's wanting to do. She's on the board of the Littleton Public Schools Foundation and doing great for that and being involved in trying to raise money for the school district."

Steve also takes great joy in his team, Carly Reed and Bryan Higgins. "I'm extremely grateful that Carly and Higgins have been with me now for, Carly 19 years and Higgins going on 11 years," he says. "So I love to just kind of see their creativity and get to see them flourish."

What encouragement or hope can you offer to educators? [47:01]

Steve says the first thing he would want educators to know is that what they're doing is making a tremendous difference, that what they're doing is connecting and engaging at the highest level. "In a time where many of us thought we were replaced by this phone -- the thing that has every answer to everything in the world -- that there is still a need for a human being to build those connections," he says. "And that teacher is that connection."

It is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. Not everybody is cut out to be a teacher. And so if you were chosen, if the universe chose you to be in this profession, you were chosen for a reason. And you're making a tremendous impact for kids, even when it's difficult, even at that moment when you're going, I think I'm not going to do this anymore.

Steve suggests that educators surround themselves with people who will challenge them and possibly even change their way of thinking and reinvigorate them. He encourages educators to look for ways to recharge their batteries and find things that make them excited about WHY they do what they do. "Go back and see the Ted Talk with Simon Sinek about the why, rediscover your why, and everything else will fall in line," he says. "If you understand your why, the how, the what, the when, everything else is there. It just all makes sense if we rediscover our why. And for a teacher, it happened really early on for us to be able to say we want to do this, and sometimes we have to go find that once again, rediscover why and reimagine something that's just amazing."

Enter to Win One of Steve Spangler's Science Books

To enter, please listen to the episode and subscribe to the podcast. Then click the button below to let us know one take-away from the episode that you are excited to explore in your own life or work. All entries must be received by December 16, 2022.

Note: I am a Bookshop.Org Affiliate. If you click through and purchase, I make a small commission. However I curate these lists to provide you a reference point for selecting and using books to connect STEM and engaged learning.

Follow My Upcoming Antarctica Adventures in Learning on Social Media

Dr. Diane will be on a huge Adventure in Learning during the month of December. Follow me on Instagram or Facebook as I explore the amazing science and mysterious beauty of Antarctica.

While I'm traveling in Antarctica, stay tuned for the final two podcast episodes and blogs of Season 1, featuring Charleston Stage teaching artist Jenna Barricklo and Kesler Science Founder Chris Kesler. We will take a short break for the holidays and resume our Adventures in Learning at the start of January 2023.

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