Steve Spangler [Exploding Soda & Flying Potatoes: How to Create Unforgettable Learning Experiences]

As I walk into the room, I hear the general din of buzzing educators tense with excitement. We’re about to hear from Steve Spangler who has been on television shows across the country and spoken as the key speaker at dozens of events. He’s got a website, blog, twitter, and hosts a myriad of science teacher training events in the U.S. as well as on cruise ships!

Whenever I think of Steve Spangler, I think of things exploding.

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, [audience claps]. Just checking…” Haha, you know the man started out as a teacher.

Steve starts his talk with an anecdote about a previous speaking engagement for elementary school students where he discovered that kids still have the sense of wonderment science teachers try to capture and encourage.

Reaching back to kindergarten, Steve discusses a science project from when he was young:

The Potato Gun with Straws

  • Stick a straw into your potato (hold your finger over the end to give it structure)
  • Do it one more time so you have potato in both ends.
  • Jam something else through the end and watch potatoes fly!
  • Bigger straws = more fun! Steve used huge plastic straws for his presentation.

“Just because kids have stuff in their hands, doesn’t mean they’re learning science.” It’s obvious Steve is concerned with giving kids and teachers authentic experiences with science. One of those experiences was in Colorado when he gave a few hundred teachers 200 pounds of potatoes and potato guns. The video was pretty intense.

Good teachers:

  • Lots of activities
  • Kids know good info
  • Tell you how to do things
  • Tell you facts

Great teachers:

  • Open ended questions
  • Teaches you why to do things
  • Takes fact and ties it to real life (making connections)
  • Turn hands on activities into unforgettable hands on experiences
  • Remember that science is fun

“If it gets to the dinner table, you win!” You know you’ve created an authentic encounter with science, Steve says, if a kid shares about it at the dinner table. But he’s concerned about learning, too. Steve is concerned with doing science activities with the wow factor and supporting them with the science content to back it up. The crazy activity should merely be the means of illustrating the concepts.

Find that person at a cocktail who responds to you telling them you are a science teacher and they respond, “I loved science when I was a kid!” and buy them a drink. They’ll always tell you their teacher was crazy.

Steve Spangler could be considered a crazy teacher. He gave us the inside tips to all his favorite “tricks” (yes, he’s got a baccalaureate degree in Bio-Chemistry, but he does tricks):

  • Pretend to have a broken arm: twist your arm and crush the plastic cup you already placed in your armpit.
  • Take a 1 liter bottle and write “Do Not Open” on the outside. Poke tiny holes near the bottom and place it on the table. As soon as someone opens the bottle, water will come squirting out!
  • Take kids to Home Depot and grab a magnet, bottle of spray paint, and bring a ball bearing along. Shake the paint and then stop as you secretly place the magnet against it, drop the ball bearing. Kids will go wild!
  • Put magnet in Starbucks cup and place on top of your car and drive.

“Great teachers exude fun.”

Steve pulled out a super long garbage bag (a la Diaper Genie). Let students to try a few breaths into the bag – how many fills it up? Eventually, you’ll get to discussing Bernoulli’s principle that it only takes one breath slightly away from the bag to fill up the whole thing because it will pull all the air around it into the bag as well. At one conference, a teacher told Steve she found Subway sandwich bags to be successful as well.

Then he told everyone to reach under their seats and grab the bag laying there. It was so much fun for everyone to mess around with the science “toys”.

To finish out his talk, Steve discussed (and gave out) mentos and Diet Coke. Always fun! Once again, Steve had great suggestions for making this a worthwhile science experiment in class: take kids outside and measure how many bricks high the soda flies. Allow kids to predict and test how high the soda will fly with different numbers of mentos.

The grand finale (choreographed to the William Tell Overture) included him knocking cups off the heads of the front row with a homemade air cannon (trash can with a hole in the bottom and the top sealed with a shower curtain). He even filled it with a smoke machine so you could see the ‘o’ shaped ring of air coming out!

The following is a clip of Steve doing the same thing on television:

To get to know Steve better, visit You can also sign up for his Experiment of the Week, a weekly email with great ideas for science lessons!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Becky – Thank you for a wonderful article on Steve Spangler. I have shared it with everyone in our office. Steve is a force on the stage, full of energy and excitement for learning. Every teacher and parent should see his presentation. For those who can’t see him live, or just can’t get enough of his infectious excitement for teaching and learning, Steve has a new book coming out in September called Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes We hope you will check it out.


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