Sixteen years ago when Stephanie Urban ’78 volunteered in her son’s first-grade class, a light bulb went off. Armed with a hair dryer and ping-pong balls to demonstrate the Bernoulli principle of velocity and pressure, Urban realized that doing hands-on experiments with kids was downright fun. She left behind her work as a professional geologist and founded Gray Matters, a hands-on science program. She works with schools, libraries, and other organizations to teach kids about everything from paleontology to technology. Urban says that “kids are natural scientists, and getting their hands dirty gets their minds open and their brains jump-started.” She is convinced that kids “learn best from kinesthetic experiences.” Urban talked with the AASC about her passion for hands-on projects such as using Skittles candy to demonstrate how nuclear physics and atoms work.
Describe the mission of Gray Matters.
We bring hands-on science to kids primarily in northeast Denver. We help kids love science by putting their hands on it, getting messy, and being really over the top with the fun part of it. But at the same time, the kids are learning. Other programs present these kinds of projects, but many focus on the fun without necessarily getting into the science. I think kids like learning the whole thing. They like knowing why something is happening. For example, why is it that when you mix vinegar and baking soda together, the material bubbles?
How has Gray Matters taken off?
Within the past year, Gray Matters has really gone gangbusters. We received a grant from Encana Corporation to present four areas of energy to every kid in the Summer Scholars program, so we are going to reach almost 1,000 kids this summer. I do one session each on wind, water, solar and nuclear, and oil and gas. The Summer Scholars [academic intervention and enrichment] program involves literacy activities in the morning, and then I get to be the prize in the afternoon.
Reports show that US students consistently rank lower in science performance than students in other countries. Why do you think that is?
They’re bored. When science is taught from a textbook, and when all you do is read about equations or about chemicals, for example, but you don’t actually do experiments, it’s not interesting.
Why don’t schools make a shift to more of this type of teaching?
It takes a lot more time to prepare these types of projects; it takes more money because you have to get the supplies, and you have to have someone who is familiar with safety issues to make sure you’re not going to blow up the school. I once did some training with kindergarten teachers and they were all so afraid of making a mistake that they just couldn’t move forward. What I’ve found is that in the kids’ eyes, mistakes are half the fun.
How can teachers improve science learning at the elementary level?
Get kids doing stuff, touching stuff, mixing things, separating things. One of my favorite projects is what I call the paleodig. We bury chicken bones to represent dinosaur bones, and the kids put together a whole grid showing where the bones are located. Then they identify the bones, rearticulate the skeleton, and make a head out of clay. You could extend that activity and have a whole unit on geology in which every project is hands-on.
Because of our environmental issues, are you seeing kids becoming more interested in science?
Yes, absolutely, especially with the whole green idea. Kids are very aware of things like recycling, and they’re driving change at home.
What if teachers just don’t have ideas?
There are plenty of examples out there [but] you might find 80 experiments, only to discover that five of them are fabulous and 75 won’t work because they’re either too hard, too expensive, or they don’t fly with the kids. One thing I have toyed with is writing a book in which I know every single experiment is a winner.
We need that book. Some of what’s out there can also seem too full of adult-speak.
Exactly. I really listen to what the kids say. I see what their interests are when they’re doing an experiment and see what makes them really excited. Then I say, “Let’s do something with that, instead of saying, “Well, this is the curriculum, this is what we’re going to do today—too bad if you’re excited about something else.”
Jane Falla is assistant editor, alumnae communications