Using Music, Magic and More to Teach STEM

At the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference, panelists used sound, magic and poetry to show how math and science could be interesting and fun.

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How can educators get students interested in science and math? For speakers at the STEM session “Music, Magic and More,” the question asked instead was: How can they not kill a student’s natural curiosity in the world around them? The way science and math is delivered, they showed, can make all the difference. 

The session was moderated by Morgan Felchner, managing editor at U.S. News. Speakers included Parag Chordia, scientist and technology entrepreneur; Alan McCormack, professor of science education at San Diego State University; and Seymour Simon, children's science book author. 

Chordia played music and told members of the audience to guess the genre, McCormack performed magic tricks inspired by the Harry Potter novels and Simon recited poetry. Students should be encouraged to think of science and math concepts as a mystery they need to solve, they explained, and teachers should not be hesitant about using technology in the classroom.

The brain is able to recognize music by doing a mathematical analysis of sound waves and deconstructing the chain of events, Chordia said. “Free the student,” he said. “Let their natural curiosity be their guide.”

Simon shared his joy of being in nature as a child, even though he grew up in the Bronx. There was a vacant lot nearby where he watched animals and plants. “The wonder and poetry of nature is always around kids,” Simon said. “Don’t spoil it for them by making it too dry and technical.” 

He went to the center of the floor and said, “Make big numbers real to people.” He dropped a bouncing ball to the ground and explained how that act could be compared with the Earth’s distance from the sun. “In the time it took this ball to get back into my hand, a spaceship can travel seven miles,” he said. “It could get us to the airport. Even at that speed, it takes a spaceship 2.5 days to travel to the moon.” 

McCormack’s magic tricks were not about a sleight-of-hand, but involved scientific and engineering principles. He shows students a trick and asks them to draw how they think it works. “When I first started teaching seventh grade I taught the way my professors had,” he said. “I lectured and gave notes. The result: It was boring."

“Then I discovered magic.” 

The audience oohed and ahhed as McCormack lit cups on fire, pulled a seemingly never-ending ribbon out of another cup and stretched out a bottle made with “invisible string.” He made the audience shout “Dumbledore can do it!” as he performed different sketches. 

Testing should not be about regurgitation, he said, and encouraged educators to have students work in groups. “Present new problems involving a higher level thinking and concepts they learned,” he suggested. 

Chordia also pointed out that people learn in such different ways, and technology is now making it possible for students to find the ways that work best for them. The science books Simon wrote, for example, are published in a digital format that highlight words as they are being "read" out loud. 

Because so much information is available in so many places, the educator has the responsibility to help students filter the information and motivate them to find the best sources, Chordia said. 

“It’s a profoundly exciting time to be involved in science and technology education,” Chordia said. “We are on the cusp of major changes in education.”

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