Iron Science

A Canadian competition celebrates science teachers with a flair for the dramatic

Nov 21, 2008
Elie Dolgin
Anyone who thinks that iron science means the laborious study of the chemical element number 26, think again. A Canadian competition called linkurl:Iron Science;http://www.ironscience.ca/ pits teams of science teachers against each other in a challenge to deliver the most creative approach to communicating science and engineering. And it reaches its final conclusion today (Nov. 21)."It's a spectacle," linkurl:Mary Anne Moser,;http://www.banffcentre.ca/programs/program.aspx?id=344&facId=1286&p=member director of communications at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering and the chair of Iron Science's national steering committee, told __The Scientist__. "We're putting a lot more splash and pizzazz into showing off science teaching."Modeled after the linkurl:Iron Chef;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Chef television series -- which ran in Japan from 1993-1999 and was adapted in the US by the Food Network in 2005 -- the Iron Science contest revolves around a "secret ingredient," which can be a physical entity such as linkurl:alcohol;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/20371/ or linkurl:marshmallows,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/11438/ or an abstract concept like pressure. Each team of four -- two of whom must be qualified teachers -- has 10 minutes to present a lively and engaging explanation of the interdisciplinary science surrounding the secret ingredient (which is not actually kept secret as contestants are told of the ingredient three weeks prior to the event)."We know that everyday science teaching isn't like this," Moser said. "We're being deliberately entertainment-oriented; that's because it's a celebration of what [teachers] can do, not necessarily a representation of what they usually do."
Last year's Iron Science finals
(Image courtesy of Mary Anne Moser)
Last year's secret ingredient was the human body. The winning squad from Manitoba focused on the centrality of linkurl:adenosine triphosphate;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15187/ in all bodily processes, while using Pavlovian trickery to hoodwink the audience into yelling ATP at the sound of a bell. (You can watch last year's spectacle in its entirety, here.)"An event like this really shows kids that teachers are willing to put themselves out there and try different things," Max Hegel, the science department head at Elmwood High School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a member of last year's winning team, told __The Scientist__.
Last year's Iron Science audience gets pumped up
(Image courtesy of Mary Anne Moser)
This year's secret ingredient is linkurl:water bottles.;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55195/ Preliminary rounds of the second annual Iron Science competition were held at five science museums across Canada from October 24 to November 6, and the winners of each local contest will square off against each other today in the finals. The event will be linkurl:broadcast live;http://www.ironscience.ca/ on the Discovery channel's website from 12:30-14:00 EST from the University of Calgary with the Daily Planet's linkurl:Jay Ingram;http://www.jayingram.ca/ hosting.Canada may have given the world linkurl:Frederick Banting and Charles Best,;http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1923/banting-photo.html but it can't lay claim to the idea behind Iron Science. The linkurl:Exploratorium;http://www.exploratorium.edu in San Francisco has run its own linkurl:Iron Science Teacher;http://www.exploratorium.edu/iron_science/index.php webcasts since 1995 when the first secret ingredient was film canisters. "We thought that'd be the last one we'd ever do, but we kept doing them because people loved them," said linkurl:Linda Shore,;http://www.exploratorium.edu/cils/people/lshore.htm director of the Exploratorium Teacher Institute. "We developed a weird cult following of internet groupies," especially in Japan, she added.The Iron Science craze is catching on beyond North America, too. Since 2005, linkurl:Science Centre Singapore;http://www.science.edu.sg/ has held an linkurl:Iron Science Teacher;http://www.science.edu.sg/ssc/ISTMain.htm competition, and a journalist-scientist duo in Italy is interested in mimicking Canada's model, Moser said.
Andrew Cumberland (center) performing at a regional
Iron Science competition last month in Ottawa

(Image courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum)
Andrew Cumberland, department head of science and engineering at Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa and a member of this year's team representing Ontario, said he's delighted just to have made it this far. As a finalist, he's already won a lab coat, a $1600 linkurl:interactive whiteboard;http://www2.smarttech.com/st/en-US/Products/SMART+Boards/ for his school, and a free trip to Calgary that includes travel, accommodation, and teaching relief costs while he's competing at the finals. The overall winner will be awarded an even better interactive whiteboard and an interactive response system, together valued at over $5300. "It's all gravy at this point," Cumberland said. "It's just a matter of how good it's going to be.Echoing rally cries of "54-40 or fight" and the War of 1812, Shore told __The Scientist__ she is throwing down the gauntlet and issuing a "formal challenge" to the upstart Canadian Iron Science contestants. "I challenge the winner to come to the Exploratorium, compete in Iron Science Teacher, and go head-to-head with our teachers," she said. "But we won't offer any prizes, I'm afraid."__To see which of the Iron Science finalists can best teach while the iron is hot, tune into the linkurl:live webcast;http://www.ironscience.ca/ from 12:30-14:00 EST today.__--Elie Dolgin mail@the-scientist.comCorrection (November 21): In a previous version of this article, we misspelled Glebe Collegiate Institute. The Scientist regrets the error.