Heralded as “The Next Bill Nye” by Austin Woman Magazine, chemistry professor Kate Biberdorf has received considerable attention for her penchant for classroom theatricality at the University of Texas at Austin.
Indeed, Biberdorf’s pyrotechnic experiments and interactive learning environments are a breath of fresh air for students accustomed to dull lectures and standardized tests, which begs the question: Is she onto something? Should this be the new normal when it comes to science education, especially at the introductory level?
We caught up with Biberdorf ahead of her appearance at the 2018 USA Science & Engineering Festival, where she’s scheduled to deliver a characteristically explosive presentation. In this exclusive interview, Biberdorf discusses what she has planned, as well as how and why she incorporates her unorthodox methods in the classroom.
Innovation & Tech Today: Could you describe your involvement in the upcoming USA Science & Engineering Festival?
Kate Biberdorf: This is going to be my first time attending the event, which I’m incredibly excited about. It’s something I’ve wanted to attend in the past. And the fact that I get to attend as a presenter this year is incredible; I’m very excited about it.
This year I am going to try to bring something a little bit explosive, and exciting. What I’m going to do is try to use my time on stage to spread the love of chemistry. And hopefully inspire maybe one, two, or maybe 100 kids to fall in love with chemistry, and hopefully pursue a degree in science someday.
I&T Today: You’re a proponent of hands-on demonstration. Aside from the fun of blowing stuff up, what makes this an important part of education?
Kate Biberdorf: I was raised by a psychologist, and one of the biggest theories is that, if you have an emotional response to something, you are likely to form a memory. And so my entire teaching mentality or strategy is that I try to find a way to make everything that I’m talking about exciting. For whatever reason, I want to make that student have an emotional response to what I’m saying or what I’m doing, and then hopefully they’ll be able to remember the underlying chemistry concept that I’m trying to talk about there.
I&T Today: Is building a habit of seeing science in every day a big part of your teaching philosophy? How do you implement that?
Kate Biberdorf: Definitely. One of my favorite things is when I receive an email from a former student, because they want to show me something. They saw something online; they saw a video; they saw something that NASA just said, and they want to share it with me.
What that means to me is that they’re looking for it, they see things in the everyday world and they’ve started to click on these articles now, and maybe they didn’t do that before they were in my classroom. But now they’re a little bit open to reading more about science.
I know 80 percent of my students are not going to become chemistry majors…But, hopefully, what they can do is use the skills I taught them in the classroom, the critical thinking skills, and apply that to their everyday life.
Essentially, I want them to be good voters. I want them to be good citizens. I want them to use their brain, analyze the information that’s being given to them by whatever politician is talking, and understand whether or not it’s fact, or maybe an alternate fact.
I&T Today: Do you find it necessary as a chemistry teacher to address things like climate change, or other political topics, in the classroom?
Kate Biberdorf: Yes. I will do the best I can to talk about it from a factual standpoint. I have a very strong opinion about what’s happening right now, in the administration in the White House, but I will keep that to myself as best I can, because that’s not the point.
What I want to do is show my students the data and show them about climate change, and then have them make their own opinion. If you show people the data and explain to them what’s going on, all of them will understand that climate change is happening, and there’s a human influence.
That’s what I try to do, and then maybe they’ll tell someone else that. Or go home on Thanksgiving and go, “Hey dad, guess what?”
I&T Today: Oh, no. Not a good idea, right? Not Thanksgiving.
Kate Biberdorf: I think it is, because you have to start these conversations. Because, if you don’t start the conversations, then we will continue to go down this road, where people will just blindly believe things about climate change.
What I need my students to do is, just start the conversation and be like, “Hey, guess what I learned?” And then the conversation started. Everyone could have a respectful conversation, that’s part of being a human, you can do it.
I&T Today: You’re saying it’s not a good idea to just avoid the controversy.
Kate Biberdorf: That’s my personal belief. That’s just me. I want change in the world, and I want it to be a better place for all of my students. Every single one of them, no matter what their background is. Yeah, I want the world to be a better place. So, you have the talk, that’s okay, it’s okay to have different opinions.
I&T Today: It’s got to be difficult to go from these explosions to multiple choice tests. To balance the sizzle with substance. What’s your strategy?
Kate Biberdorf: That’s a good question. It’s difficult; it’s very difficult. What I do is, I use an active learning classroom. My students read a little bit of material before they enter the classroom. So, hopefully they’ve understood the basic definition of what enthalpy is, before they come into the class.
And then what I would do is start my classroom and possibly do a demonstration. Maybe I breathe fire or something, a standard combustion reaction. Throughout the rest of the class we will go back to that demonstration and say, “when we use cornstarch to light something on fire, what was actually happening?”
We can discuss the thermal energy. I personally use iClicker Reef in the classroom. I will talk for a little bit, then I put a question up and have the students answer the question. We can check in right then with real time data and figure out, “Are my students with me or not?” And then I can adjust and either move on, because they all 100 percent understand the concept, or I stay in that topic and kind of give them more information, explaining using different analogies or a different approach.
The best thing to do is if you want your students to pay attention or something, you have to do a proper assessment. And so, after the classroom experience, I almost always test on my demonstrations. I will say, “What happens when you put a balloon in liquid nitrogen? We did that in class, now here’s a real world example of this. Explain it.”
Yeah, and you can do that with multiple choice. It’s not the easiest, but with 500 students you have to. You just get creative.
I&T Today: What’s the most fun science experiment I can do right now without killing myself?
Kate Biberdorf: Here’s what I would say. Especially at this time of year, I love to use dry ice in water. You can do so many different things with that. If you have a pumpkin that’s carved out, you can put a little bit of water in there, in a little beaker, or preservation dish, or bowl at home. And then, just dump dry ice in there and now all of a sudden your pumpkin is smoking, you’ve got the sublimation going, the carbon dioxide is going out of their face. You can do that with a cauldron you get from Walmart. Now you have a spooky science room.
Or you can do something where you’re adding food coloring to your water, and you dump the food coloring water over the dry ice and now all of a sudden you see just that white gas being evolved. You can talk about where the food coloring is. But that’s the easiest and cheapest one, because dry ice is sold at almost all grocery stores, at least in Austin. And you can do it at home.