EP. 152: How can we make science fun? image 1 (name icon Book open 4)

May 1, 2024

EP. 152: How can we make science fun?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math are projected to grow by almost 11% by 2031, much faster than non-STEM occupations.

While numerous students are interested in STEM careers, many do not feel prepared to pursue jobs in the field.

Why is it essential for students to understand science? What opportunities are available for students interested in STEM? And how can we make science fun for kids?

In this episode, Dr. Kate Biberdorf shares how we can make science fun.

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Meet Kate

Dr. Kate Biberdorf is a chemist, science entertainer, best-selling author, and professor at The University of Texas.

Through her theatrical and hands-on approach to teaching, Dr. Biberdorf is breaking down the image of the stereotypical scientist while reaching students who might otherwise be intimidated by science.

Kevin: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math are projected to grow by almost 11% by 2031, much faster than non-STEM occupations. While numerous students are interested in STEM careers, many do not feel prepared to pursue jobs in the field. Why is it important for students to understand science? What opportunities are available for students interested in STEM? And how can we make science fun for kids? This is “What I Want to Know.” And today, I’m joined by Dr. Kate Biberdorf to find out.

Dr. Kate Biberdorf is a chemist, science entertainer, bestselling author, and professor at the University of Texas. Through her theatrical and hands-on approach to teaching, Dr. Biberdorf is breaking down the image of the stereotypical scientist, while at the same time, reaches students who might otherwise be intimidated by science. She joins us today to share how we can make science fun. Kate, welcome to the show.

Dr. Biberdorf: Thank you for having me. I am so excited to be here.

Kevin: Well, let me tell you, I’m excited too. I have watched your videos. I have seen you on Kelly Clarkson and some of the late-night stuff. Your energy is positively infectious. So I want all of our listeners and viewers to understand that we have the infamous Kate the Chemist in our midst. So this is really cool. I want to start with your start. I mean, you love chemistry. You love STEM. You were a teacher. Where did that come from?

Dr. Biberdorf: The chemistry came from an amazing teacher, Mrs. Palsrok, I love you, from Portage, Michigan. She was my high school chemistry teacher my sophomore year. She would run around the classroom lighting stuff on fire. She was just so into chemistry. And honestly, ever since I was 15, I knew I wanted to be a chemist because of that one woman. So to every teacher out there, keep it up, like it is working. It just takes one teacher to interact with one student, and it puts us on an entirely new, amazing trajectory.

Kevin: You know what’s interesting, though? I’ve heard other people, like my father was a chemistry major in college, and, you know, many, many years ago, he used the same thing. Light something on fire, blow stuff up. There’s this image about chemistry that, you know, you’re learning all the ways that things can be combustible, but you’re also learning how all these molecules and ingredients come together.

Dr. Biberdorf: Oh, completely. I mean, yes, these are all fun explosions, and I like to breathe fire, and I like to do big thunderclouds. I mean, let’s be honest here, I enjoy the showmanship of it. But at the end of the day, there’s a purpose. So William James’ theory of emotional memory says if you have an emotional response to something, you’re more likely to remember it. And so I use that in the classroom. So when I’m breathing fire, it is to get their attention. But then the research shows you have about 60 seconds to get them to actually learn something after that. So I breathe fire, quickly get the cornstarch out of my mouth, and then I’m like, “Okay, let’s talk about stoichiometry,” or, “Heat and work and thermodynamics,” and just kind of try to illustrate whatever principle it is you’re teaching in the classroom at that moment.

Kevin: Now, you know, you mentioned this one teacher who was a huge influence, and you knew you wanted to be involved in chemistry. But you’ve taken that theatrical, hands-on approach to a whole different level. Where did that come from? Because you were an elementary school teacher. Now you’re a personality around the idea of chemistry. I mean, that’s kind of a crazy concept, but it’s true. So where did all that come from in terms of your development to be really a show person for science?

Dr. Biberdorf: Well, I’ve always had a showmanship part. I think my sister and I loved to do little shows for my parents. I mean, we were the kids who would put the dances on and get everyone excited. But I’ve actually never taught in K-12. So I’m a chemistry professor at the University of Texas. So all the students I teach are 18 years old, maybe 19 years old. And so it’s really fun for me in my classroom to get them when they’re turning into adults. I mean, these students are figuring out laundry, they’re figuring out stoichiometry all at the same time, and so it’s really fun to be a part of shaping their growth. And I’ve learned that pulling that showmanship in, those little dances, the little goofy stuff, kind of being my authentic self truly, and being a performer is what connects with my students. And then they see that I love chemistry. It’s not a shtick. It’s not an act. I love chemistry, and maybe they can kind of buy into that for the next nine months.

Kevin: Now you’re a college professor, but what made you decide to go that route as opposed to the earlier grades?

Dr. Biberdorf: The honest answer is I like the workload of the college course. I don’t know that I would be good in the high school classroom, all day teaching the same thing over and over again. That’s not really my personality. So I think the lecturing to college students twice in a row and then taking a 48-hour break, and then teaching again was something that was really appealing for me. And that opens a lot of doors when you have this open time. So I just teach. I don’t have a research group or anything like that.

Kevin: I see.

Dr. Biberdorf: And so when I’m just teaching, I mean, and I’m not trying to minimize because teaching is a lot. I have a thousand students every semester, but you have some extra time. And so back in 2014, I went to my boss, and I was like, “I’m bored.” Like, “You’ve got to give me something else to do.” And so we started this outreach program. It was called Fun with Chemistry. I went out to local Austin schools and blew stuff up for these kids all the time. I mean, I would perform anywhere between two to nine times every week.

Kevin: Wow.

Dr. Biberdorf: And my minimum amount of student interactions was 20,000 a year. And so every single year, I was interacting with 20,000 students. Started in Austin, but then teachers talk. I started giving invitations to go to New York and L.A. Amy Poehler reached out to me. And the whole time I’m working with my love of chemistry and also that theatrical piece, that performer, the “I like a camera. I like being a ham in front of my camera.” All that kind of blended together to being a teacher. Because when I teach in a classroom, I have 500 students. So it’s a show. It’s a performance. I mean, I can’t sit there and be boring Kate. It won’t work. If you want people to fall in love with the science, you’ve got to show them why you love it.

Kevin: So give me an example. A freshman class, the first class, University of Texas, you walk into the classroom. Describe how you approach that.

Dr. Biberdorf: So if a student is coming into my classroom, I have the 8:00 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday lecture. I also have the 9:30 class as well. But they’re going to walk into music. If it’s the first class ever, it’s Metallica “Enter Sandman” just because I want to jar them and kind of show them that, you know, don’t have any expectations here. I play everything.

Kevin: So we’re not going to hear smooth jazz, right?

Dr. Biberdorf: You will not hear smooth jazz. You will not hear smooth jazz. Nothing against it, but not before an 8:00 a.m. chemistry lecture. Like, you have to get the energy up. If Taylor Swift drops new music, I put that up. My students liked Bad Bunny for a little bit, so I was playing that music. Just whatever you can to connect with them but get the energy up.

And then, I use a little bit of a hybrid teaching classroom or style. So I teach for maybe 5, 10 minutes, and then I have a question. So I pose a question. It’s a challenging question on the material I just taught. Then I have maybe 10 to 15 learning assistants in the classroom as well, so these are sophomores that did well last year, and then a couple teaching assistants and sometimes a specialist.

So there’s about 20 people in my teaching team that then walk around this classroom. So there’s 500 students, 20 people on my team, and we have, like, maybe 4 minutes for them to work on the problem. They talk to each other. If they have questions, they raise their hand. We run up to them. We answer the question. Then we work on the problem together. Rinse and repeat for 75 minutes.

And then after class, at the very end, I always say the exact same thing, like, “Have a great week, take care of yourself, and drink water.” And the “drink water” is something is that they will yell with me, “Drink water.” And it started because I used to teach the Friday morning class, and my students would show up hungover. And I was like, “You’ve got to be hydrating, you children.” But now it’s become my catchphrase. And if I don’t end it with class like that, those students come up and they’re like, “Are you okay? What’s wrong with you?”

Kevin: Well, and I am sure, and the response is pretty clear, that the students embrace this enthusiastically even though it’s Metallica at 8:00 a.m.

Dr. Biberdorf: Absolutely. I will say I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. I think I would be my husband’s worst nightmare. He’s an extreme introvert, so he might take a class from my colleague. But that’s what is great about these big schools. I have three amazing colleagues where we team teach together, and we are always talking about what’s going on. And so if my specific teaching style doesn’t work for your learning style, they can just pop over to my teammate, my colleague. They haven’t missed any material because we’re using the same homework. We use the same learning exercises before class. So they can just slide over into that class, and they don’t miss a beat, and they’re able to do something that’s better for their learning style. And so that’s why I really like teaching at the big schools.

Kevin: You know, it’s interesting where we are in the teaching profession, particularly with this new generation of students, because it used to be the old ed school approach was sort of stand and deliver, lecture, be still, don’t move, and then, you know, regurgitate it back in a test and then forget it. Okay.

Dr. Biberdorf: Right.

Kevin: But now, at my company, Stride, we’ve coined this phrase “edutainers.”

Dr. Biberdorf: Yep.

Kevin: Because, you know, kids, the attention span is different. And plus, the old-school approach of stand and deliver, lecture, pay attention, don’t move, be quiet, it just doesn’t work. How do you see that shift taking place, particularly since you’re teaching a subject where that old-school approach was the order of the day?

Dr. Biberdorf: Well, that’s how I learned. So, I learned with the standing there and being lectured at, except for one calculus course. He was radical. He was doing these crazy things. And now that I look back at it, all he was doing is what I do now in the classroom. He would teach for a few minutes and say, “Okay, do this problem.” And then he’d walk around the classroom and help us, and then he’d teach again, and then he walk around and help us. It works. It’s how these students learn. We have started doing something this semester. We beta test something every semester. If you’re teachers out there, you probably relate to this. Like you can’t just keep the same thing. You have to change one thing every semester.

But we’re trying this new thing called chemistry shorts. And so they’re about four-minute videos of just, like, little things my colleague and I want to talk on and touch on, and it’s a little short video. And my students love them. We’re getting great feedback on it, and it’s just a little bit more context. Maybe we run through one problem. Maybe we ask each other a question about something, but it’s just a little extra. And the students are loving these because it’s just short, accessible material, and we’ve really tried to hold ourselves to that four-minute limit. We did one that was like 12 minutes. And guess what? Nobody watched it. But the four-minute one, they’re all in. And so we just have to respond to that. It’s like, what is the point? We understand chemistry. I’m not talking just to say the same thing over and over again. I want them to learn. This is a hoop they have to jump through, and so I want them to be the best students they possibly can, and I just try to facilitate that.

I mean, at the end of the day, it’s something like 2% of my students go on to be chemistry majors. So, truly, I’m trying to set them up to be good citizens, good voters. I want them to be able to look at data and immediately say, “Okay, that doesn’t seem accurate. Maybe I’m getting some misinformation here.” And so that’s truly my goal at the end of the day. I would never admit that. I want them to love chemistry, but I want them to be good voters too and good humans to be around.

Kevin: Let me ask you this because, you know, when you talk about being an edutainer, you know, and this idea of injecting or inserting fun in substantive, meaningful curriculum, the idea of these experiments and, you know, blowing stuff up is part of it. How do you decide what substantive material you should be focused on when using one of these experiments?

Dr. Biberdorf: It’s such a good question. For me, I’ve been teaching for 10 years. And so my thing is, what are the pieces that the students have a really hard time understanding? So specific heat capacity, pressure, they really can’t wrap their head around what pressure actually is, and so I show it to them. I put baking soda at the bottom of a paint can, put some vinegar in there, shake it up, and then the lid flies off the top. And it’s like, how did that happen? Okay. Gases are evolved. We had a neutralization reaction. Now all that carbon dioxide was slamming into the lid. It built up pressure. There’s force, and then it shot the lid off the top. So, you can kind of go through these principles. And once they see you do the demonstration, that’s when they’re then interested in it.

And so, for me, it’s things like pressure. Like I said, specific heat capacity is another one that’s really hard for them to understand. So I light my hand on fire. And then they’re like, “Wait. How did you just do that? How are you not screaming in pain?” It’s like, well, it turns out if I coat my hand on water first, water has a really high specific heat capacity. It takes a lot of energy to raise it up, blah blah blah, the whole thing. And then now they understand how specific heat capacity works. They understand how I can set my hand on fire.

So, yes, it’s a gimmick. Yes, it’s a shtick. But there’s a point. There’s a purpose. There’s a reason why I’m doing it, and you don’t waste the demo. So you can only use them on the topics that are hard to understand.

Kevin: I love that because I’ve heard so many great teachers say something similar, that, you know, they know the parts that many students have a hard time grasping, and they have to do something a little different, other than just reading the text or going through the traditional lecture approach.

You know, I’ve seen you on “TODAY Show.” We talked about Kelly Clarkson. I’ve seen you on Stephen Colbert. And you do these experiments. How do you decide, similar question, which experiments to do on these national TV programs? Because, you know, this isn’t a chemistry class. There’s a bigger goal here. Part of it is to showcase the fun associated with chemistry STEM. So how do you decide which ones to use for those bigger sort of national shows?

Dr. Biberdorf: That’s such a great question, and it’s a completely different purpose or a completely different use of the experiment. So in my classroom, if I do something like breathing fire, I then break the whole thing down. I talk about the different principles. On the “TODAY Show” or Kelly Clarkson or Rachael Ray, whoever’s show, it’s showing the science. And then, if I can sneak one sentence in to educate, that’s the goal. So it’s like a completely different approach.

But to pull back the curtain a little bit, I send a huge list of experiments, and I say, “Here are all the cool things we could do. Which ones sound interesting?” And then they come down, and they, you know, pitch stuff back to me. I’m actually going through that with the “TODAY Show” right now. I’m going to be up there in about a month or so. So I’m really excited about that, but we’ll see which ones they land on. I pitched some amazing ones, and then they came back, and they’re like, “I’m so sorry. I should have told you we’re going to be inside this time.”

So everything I pitched, I had to just, like, save for next time. But they were like, “We’ll have you back for sure when we can be outside.” But because we’re in the plaza and it’s New York City, we have to be really, really cognizant for good reasons of, like, booms. So like we can’t do things where it’s a big boom. Or if we are going to do something with a big boom, we have to kind of alert the area. And so, usually, the “TODAY Show” just avoids that, which I respect completely. I understand. As a scientist, I still want to do it, but I get why they don’t want to do a big boom in the middle of the city.

Kevin: Let’s talk about where we are with STEM and science. As you know, there’s been a shortage of women, persons of color who have been in the field. Math is viewed as scary by a majority of American students in this country. And, you know, we have this notion of the stereotypical scientist, but we’re moving away from that. By the way, what is the stereotypical scientist?

Dr. Biberdorf: Now I don’t think there is one. But for a long time, it was the guy that I was raised on. You probably . . . I don’t know. I don’t want to date you, but maybe Mr. Wizard, maybe Bill Nye. I mean, it’s a white guy, right?

Kevin: Yeah, exactly.

Dr. Biberdorf: It’s a white guy with a white lab coat and maybe with a bowtie. So I refuse to wear a white lab coat, but that’s also because white lab coats are not flame resistant and I play with fire. So I’ve got to avoid those anyway. But that’s, like, my only diva moment that I’ll flare with. If they try to put me in a white lab coat, I’m like, “I’m not doing it. That’s my one no. I’ll do everything else you want me to, but I’m not wearing a white lab coat.”

But, yeah, there’s these studies I’m sure you’re aware of them now, where if you say, like, draw a scientist, these kids are drawing everybody. They’re drawing every single race. Every single gender is included. Like everything is there, and so that’s really beautiful to see. So there’s definitely a change. It’s coming, but we need more people to embrace science.

So if you’re out there and you hear microaggressions against science, like, step in. If someone’s like, “Oh, you’re a nerd,” be like, “That’s cool.” That’s a good thing that you’re smart and you’re using your brain, and you just solved that puzzle faster than everybody else. That’s awesome. You’re a good person.

Kevin: In the opening, I talked about the fact that STEM jobs are projected to grow by 11% by 2031. And other professions, the job projection growth numbers are falling. So we know there’s going to be more need, yet we’ve got this challenge of, you know, fewer and fewer kids seem to be embracing math. Obviously, what you’re doing, making it fun and making it relevant is important. But what other things could we be doing to draw greater attention in a positive way to the value and benefits of the STEM field?

Dr. Biberdorf: Well, I think looking at our colleagues or looking at our neighbors is a good thing. Often, you can see somebody walking their dog, and it turns out they’re a scientist and they are actually part of working on the vaccine, or maybe they’re working on some really cool medicine, or maybe they’re working on insulin. I mean, who knows? So just talking to your neighbors and figuring out who is in your community around you, and starting to just get those connections going when your kids start asking questions, that’s a really good thing to do.

I also encourage people to just do chemistry walks. So just get outside and just follow your kid around. And it doesn’t have to be chemistry. I could just say science or whatever. But whatever they point to, whatever they start looking at, be like, embrace the fact that they ask the question, admit that you don’t know the answer, and be like, “Wow, we’re scientists now. We’re asking questions. Let’s figure out the answer.” And turn it into a game. And so, “What’s this flower? Will it hurt us? Can we eat it?” All those are really good questions to be asking with your kids.

But to kind of go to your point, the pandemic really hurt us. We’re going to see these numbers coming out soon. I can see it in my classroom. Right now, I have the students that had chemistry during 2020, and there is a massive dip between the students I had last year and this year. Like, we can see it.

Kevin: Wow.

Dr. Biberdorf: But as an educator, I was like, all right, game on. Challenge accepted. Like, you are going to leave my classroom at the same level all my other students do. And so a lot of the good educators are stepping up to the plate, and so we’re doing things differently. So this year, we’ve added chunks of curriculum in that we never teach, but it is straight up sophomore high school chemistry science that we’re teaching because we’re just assuming they didn’t get that because they didn’t. They missed part of that, and so we’re kind of embedding it into the curriculum. So we’re going to see these dips, but as educators hang on, fight through it, and see it as a challenge.

And so our goal is that, at the end of the semester, that they are the exact same level that our students would usually be. That is the goal. Did we hit it last semester? We were pretty close. We were pretty close, but the numbers are there. There was a little bit of a dip. So we’re going to have to keep fighting and keep kind of just raising our A game.

Kevin: It’s beautiful that you recognize the dip, and you recognize you have to do something differently. And that leads me to a question about even though you’re in higher ed, you’ve interacted with a lot of school aged kids in the K-12 system. You have this national presence. There are a lot of teachers who teach in the STEM field. It could be, you know, the math. It could be the science. I mean, the chemistry or the physics, what have you, in K-12, and they’re facing the same reality. What advice would you give K-12 teachers on how to stimulate students more in this area even while facing the fact that those deficits exist? And I know you’re in higher ed, but I think they’d be interested in hearing your perspective.

Kevin: Hands-on is always the way I go. So trying to get students doing hands-on experiments and actually getting their hands dirty. The problem with that is budget constraints. I know to actually build these kits out for these students takes time, and I know how difficult that is. In a very embarrassing way, I’m going to do a shameless plug. I have books. So there’s the Kate the Chemist books, “The Big Book of Experiments,” and then “The Awesome Book of Edible Experiments for Kids.” Each of those are 25 experiments you can do, and I wrote those books with the idea of them going into the hands of students that are in the lower socioeconomic status. So, ideally, all of those experiments are things that you can do with stuff that you already have in the classroom.

And so, if you’re looking for something just to kind of, you know, make things more exciting, try to make, you know, one of my experiments. Maybe try to make unicorn glue. Maybe make dragon cupcakes, if you’re allowed to eat stuff with your students. It really depends on the rules at your school. But there are ways to kind of make things more interesting. Just chemistry in general is baking. It’s cooking. So you don’t have to necessarily go into the lab. I mean, you could make just tomato soup. You could make something very simple, and that is actually being a chemist, and then you can enjoy it. You can eat it. Tomato soup is, like, a horrible example. I should have said, like, chocolate chip cookies, but something that the students would actually want to eat. But all of that is being a scientist. So just kind of stepping back a little bit and being creative and trying to speak their language goes a long way.

Whenever I have a student who’s definitely forced to take chemistry because they’re trying to be a doctor, but they don’t really like it, I try to speak their language. It’s like, “Do you like video games? Do you like sports? What is it that you like? Because I can promise you there’s a lot of chemistry in there, but I will just have to fight for your attention. I will figure out what it is.” But having that approach, I think, really helps. If you get mad at the students, it’s not their fault that they went through the pandemic in 2020. Like, we all did. We all suffered from it. So it’s, like, how do we all move on from it together and make the world a better place [inaudible 00:22:03].

Kevin: Yeah. I love it. So, Kate, I have one last question. This is what I really want to know. And this is going to put you on the spot a little bit because, you know, I’ve seen you on shows. I’ve seen your experiments. I want you to share what are your favorite experiments because you do a lot of them. And again, that doesn’t mean you don’t have other favorites, but I really want you to talk about some of the favorite experiments that you use when you teach and show off for these kids.

Dr. Biberdorf: Well, I’ll tell you my finale. So I go do big public lectures all the time or big shows in the community. And every time, if possible, my finale is the thundercloud. And so, for the thundercloud, I have a big bucket. Picture like a Home Depot painter’s bucket, those big ones. And I fill it halfway with liquid nitrogen, and that goes on the ground. And then in my hands, I have another bucket that’s halfway filled of almost boiling water, so like 80 degrees Celsius water, so not quite 100 degrees, which is boiling. And so then you pour the boiling water into the liquid nitrogen, and the liquid nitrogen is freezing cold, so it’s 77 Kelvin, which is like -196 Celsius, and I always screw this up. It’s like -300 Fahrenheit, something like that. I don’t use Fahrenheit. That’s for losers. Okay. But, anyway, so you take your hot water, pour it into the liquid nitrogen, and you get this big vaporization cloud. It’s a big thundercloud. My entire body disappears with white gas, so it completely covers me.

My dream is someday to do that in Vegas where I have a trapdoor underneath me, so I completely disappear. Like maybe I appear somewhere else. I don’t know. But that would mean that people are coming to a science show when they’re in Vegas, which I don’t know, a girl can dream.

Kevin: You know, I knew you would talk about something relating to blowing something up. I just knew that that’s what it would be. Kate the Chemist, keep doing what you’re doing, and thanks for joining us on “What I Want to Know.”

Dr. Biberdorf: Thank you for having me. It’s really been an honor. I appreciate it.

Kevin: Thanks for listening to “What I Want to Know.” Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That’s #WIWTK.

For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I’m your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining “What I Want to Know.”


About the Show

Education is undergoing a dramatic shift, creating an opportunity to transform how we serve learners of all ages. Kevin P. Chavous turns to innovators across education, workforce development, and more to ask: “How can we do better?”

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