DoDEA students learn the science behind the magic

Europe District
Published May 22, 2013
WIESBADEN, Germany – For Brian Temple, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District public affairs chief, magic is a passion. On May 10, Temple integrated his hobby into his day job and taught students from Department of Defense Education Activity’s Aukamm Elementary School about the science behind the magic as part of the district’s science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, educational outreach program.

Temple performed magic tricks using rope, coins, cards and flash paper, and explained the science and technology behind the production of these props.

“I wanted to open the door for the kids to think about science, technology, engineering and math through magic,” Temple said.

A special trick involving currency and fire generated a great deal of student excitement.

“My favorite part was when he burned the flash paper that turned into a dollar bill,” said Sawyer Jones, a third-grade student and science enthusiast. “I think it’s interesting because it’s learning from someone else and their magic that they figured out.”

Flash paper is produced through a scientific process using tissue paper dipped into nitrocellulose and concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids. The magical paper burns intensely with no ash or residue when lit because of the chemical manufacture process.

Throughout the presentation, Temple played on students’ excitement about magic to reveal the science and technology supporting the art.

“I never knew you could do so many cool things with science, technology and math,” said Hayden Perusich, a third-grade student. “I think [his presentation] was cool. It’s someone different teaching you something that your teacher hasn’t taught you. It’s all brand new.”

Educators at DoDEA schools are engaging with STEM mentors and role models, like Temple, to collaborate in person and virtually. The goal is to enhance student interest and proficiency in STEM, according to the organization’s strategic plan.

Schools can use any help the engineers or other departments within the Army are willing to offer, said Corinne Voyer, a fourth-grade Aukamm teacher and science fair coordinator.

“Unless we bring the outside into the school, the students don’t think, ‘Oh, this is something that happens in the real world, this is something that maybe I want to explore and do as a career,’” Voyer said. “As a nation, we want to encourage students more; that’s why [President] Obama made the STEM initiative, so that we can get back to what we were doing during the [early days of] NASA times, to get the creative juices flowing again.”

It’s important for schools and professional organizations to work together through creative means to show students that STEM is critical to America’s future, Temple said.

“Our educators do a great job teaching our children about these elements, but then you get to bring in someone who has made a career of it, who is passionate about it, and they come and share their experiences and knowledge with these students; it’s really a great marriage in that partnership,” he said. “They get the traditional education and they get a lot of hands-on interaction with those of us in the Corps who are volunteering our services.”

After working for the Corps of Engineers for more than 10 years, Temple noticed that many of his colleagues - designers, planners, engineers and project managers - volunteer in local schools to promote STEM. Inspired by his co-workers, Temple tapped into his more than 25 years experience as a magician and developed a presentation using magic to open the door to STEM.

“As a magician and communications professional, I don’t necessarily fall into the [STEM] line of work,” he said. “What I’m doing here is performing tricks, but also explaining the scientific elements behind them. It’s another way of getting the kids excited about all this.”

Last year, Temple presented at Aukamm for the first time. This year, he was back by popular demand.

“The students really like magicians, magic and anything with optical illusions,” said Dianne Johnston, an Aukamm math coach. “The benefit of bringing real-world people into the classrooms is that the students get to see adults, besides their parents and teachers, using math or science. They create enthusiasm and excitement for career fields or leisure activities that involve STEM.”

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students typically decide in the eighth grade whether or not to pursue higher-level math and science classes. Based on this statistic, elementary school is the right age to get kids thinking about STEM, Voyer explains.

“We need to get [the students] early because sometimes students start to think, ‘I’m not good at math; I’m not good at science,’” Voyer said. “But if they engage in something fun, they are more likely to remain open to it and explore it later on.”

In 2008, only four out of every 100 U.S. college graduates earned an engineering degree, among the lowest percentage in the world, studies show. Students in the U.S. need to start to see the important connections to math and science in their lives and futures, Johnston said.

“Our nation will be at a loss without these students choosing math and science, especially at the elementary level,” she said.

The Corps of Engineers is expanding its support to DoDEA in the U.S., Asia and Europe to act as a constant STEM resource to students throughout their educational careers. Europe District, for example, is expanding a program with local Wiesbaden schools to execute eight education and community outreach activities each year. The partnership is a means to nurture the next generation and guide them into STEM careers so the U.S. can remain secure and prosperous, Temple said.

“The threat is really the longer term of our nation in these careers, and we need to be competitive,” he said. “It’s important that we work together through more creative means and interactions to indoctrinate these students to understand that STEM is an important part of our future.”