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A passion for learning: Meet New Westminster's Science Ninjas

This new video series wants to help teachers bring science to life — through bubbles, slime, flames and more.

Interview Darren Ng about his latest passion project, and you may find yourself doing less interviewing and more playing.

You’ll get your hands on slime and make gigantic bubbles and watch as laser light dances to the music of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. You’ll quickly discover what makes Ng an award-winning science teacher — and just how infectious his enthusiasm for science can be.

Ng is well-known around New Westminster Secondary School as the teacher who likes to catch kids’ attention with dramatic experiments that often involve flame and explosions.

But, for Ng, science is far more than just eye-catching stunts.

“Sometimes people will say to me, ‘What are you blowing up today?’ And I’ll say: ‘Minds,’” he says with a grin.

Ng and two School District 40 colleagues, Victoria Yung and Samantha Dowdell, have joined forces to create a series of videos designed to help other teachers follow the same path.

Meet the Science Ninjas.

Training teachers to become 'ninjas' in their own classrooms

The Science Ninjas video series is being produced with funding from the School District 40 Innovation Grants program. Its target audience: teachers.

Ng won the inaugural Gordon Gore Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching from the B.C. Association of Physics Teachers in 2021. The Science Ninjas series sprang from his desire to help other teachers make science fun and accessible to students at all levels.

The videos grew out of the studio he created in his own home basement in 2020, when he had to find a way to engage students remotely during the early months of the pandemic.

“I was like, I want to start this Youtube channel where we train teachers to become science ninjas, ninjas in your classroom,” he said. “Like, if we don’t have to create the wheel, and if we can make dollar-store-friendly, deep and cheap sort of things, let’s do it. …

“I found there was this gap in knowledge between new teachers who are very enthusiastic, they want to get hands-on but either don’t have the budget or the wherewithal to do these cool, hands-on things. And so that started that journey. And then, eventually, that became our channel.”

The studio has since moved to Ng’s science lab at NWSS, and along the way he acquired a production team: Victoria Yung, a Glenbrook Middle School teacher, who serves as videographer, editor and producer, and Samantha (Sam) Dowdell, a Fraser River Middle School teacher who shared her talents as performer, singer-songwriter and producer.

Dowdell has since stepped away, but she appears in the three completed videos that have just been launched:  Flame Bubbles, Bottle Rockets and Slime Time. Each provides teachers with a fun experiment they can perform with their own classes to present theoretical concepts in a practical light.

Sure, you can teach kids about combustion — but what happens if they get to see you hold a fireball in your hands first? And what about taking physics and chemistry in the real world by teaching kids to make their own bottle rockets using a little baking soda, vinegar, a two-litre plastic pop bottle and a few other random household goods?

“I knew that we’ve got to get kids actually interacting with the stuff instead of just talking,” Ng explained. “I always tell my kids the first week, ‘Would you ever do a driving test or learn how to drive where all you did was read the book?’ And, sadly, that’s kind of how we teach science sometimes.”

Teaching science from a textbook, he says, is “counter-pedagogical” to how people actually learn.

“If you want to fry an egg, you burn a lot of eggs before you know how to fry an egg,” he said.

“I really want to go beyond the worksheet. I want to get kids actually doing science and questioning. Then we go to the worksheet or the textbook, but it makes way more sense because you’ve seen it yourself.”

The videos also emphasize for both teachers and students that it’s OK if things don’t work the first time.

Ng is a big proponent of what he calls “failing forward.” For him, the times when things don’t work, and the process of figuring out why they didn’t, are as essential a part of the learning as the successes are.

Limited budget, limited time: Making experiments accessible for teachers

The experiments he shoots for the Science Ninjas videos run the gamut of science, but they all have a key element in common: They can be done using ordinary, low-cost items that most teachers will have handy or will be able to pick up at the nearest dollar store.

Ng’s laser music show, for instance, involves a reused plastic Starbucks cup, a balloon, a dry-erase marker eraser, a Bluetooth speaker, some Play-Doh and a laser pointer ordered off Amazon; you can even use the cheaper dollar-store kind of laser, and it’ll work just fine. (That video is still in progress, but watch for it in future weeks.)

Ng readily admits he doesn’t come up with the experiment ideas on his own.

He’s the kind of "science nerd" who spends his spare time reading up on such things, watching videos on the internet and following science channels on Twitter and Youtube, and he says there are plenty of creators out there already doing great experiments.

“Where I think our team has a gift is curating and finding the things: What would a teacher actually be able to use or to create with a limited budget, limited time?” he said.

Teachers already have heavy workloads, he noted, so he doesn’t want to make their lives more complicated. That’s why each video lays out an experiment in a step-by-step, readily accessible way.

“Darren does a lot of the pre-testing and making sure that the idea is viable,” Yung explained. “Then I’m coming in trying to figure out how we’re going to film this, how are we going to present the demo in a way that is interesting, and also very clear to teachers so that when they actually watch it, they’re not confused, and they know what they need to do.”

Safety first: Videos cover hazards and precautions

Though Ng’s reputation for blowing things up precedes him, he’s quick to note that safety is paramount.

Ng, who’s the father of three children himself, wants teachers to be able to do the experiments safely with kids of all ages.

He and his team figure out how to achieve that, and Yung makes sure each of the videos includes warnings about possible hazards and safety precautions that need to be followed along the way.

“You can give a tip to a teacher saying, ‘Hey, by the way, watch out for this, because this may be potentially harmful to your students if they're standing too close or if they're all doing their own independent demos and they're too close together,’” Yung noted. “Or, ‘Make sure you're giving them a controlled amount of this substance; if you have too much, that could cause this problem.’ So we always have these tips.”

Where science meets art: Musician helps bring science to life

At the heart of Science Ninjas is a love of learning — and that love encompasses more than just pure science.

Ng is quick to point out that science isn’t the only way to approach learning.

“It’s an important, influential way. It’s a good perspective, but it’s not the only one,” he said.

That was one of the reasons he liked the idea of working with a performer, in the person of Dowdell, who provides songs to go along with the science in the first three videos.

“She would bring an outsider’s perspective and force us out of our scientific ivory tower and challenge us on things like, ‘Well, science is everywhere, but art is everywhere too,’” Ng said.

Dowdell met Ng during a professional development workshop he led about teaching science in the classroom. She was in her second year of teaching at the time, and teaching science was new terrain for the self-described “English-philosophy major, artsy-fartsy kind of girl.”

“I was thrust into teaching science, and I actually really, really enjoyed it. Like, I love science, and now I teach math. And I think that more people should grow up with science and math actually being seen as ‘fun’ subjects, because they are fascinating and fun, and they can be when seen through the right eyes,” Dowdell said.

“Darren’s eyes are definitely the eyes that see science as being absolutely fantastic. And it's really cool seeing science through his eyes.”

When Ng suggested Dowdell might be able to put her musical skills to work writing songs about science, she was easily persuaded. Her lifelong passion for music and her background in performance helps her deliver memorable lessons, both in the Science Ninja videos and in the classroom more broadly.

If a teacher can bring their own authentic inner passion to the table, she said, they can bring the message to students: “Everything I'm bringing to you is a cool thing about the world that you get to know, that you get to explore, you get to learn — as opposed to ‘We have to do this project; we have to do this test.’ These are opportunities to explore the world and follow our natural curiosities. Kids love learning, and when you present things as ‘This is exciting. This is worth knowing, this is worth exploring,’ I think they really gravitate towards that.”

The Science Ninjas videos reflect that, she said — and they go a long way to helping to dispel the perception that science is only for a certain type of person or that it requires a certain type of intelligence to be able to understand it.

“Darren really does a good job of breaking that down, like, ‘No, this stuff is inherently interesting, and everyone should find it interesting, and everyone has the ability to learn it and to understand it,’” she noted.

The Science Ninjas hope their passion for learning can help other teachers pass on that passion to their own students.

“It’s really about teaching teachers how to bring things into their classroom,” Dowdell noted. “The intended audience is teachers, but it’s meant for everyone to enjoy. The hope is that science just sparks real-life learning, in-person learning, for other new teachers to take into their classrooms — and knowing that anyone, even an English-teacher-philosophy-major person, can get excited and enjoy learning and teaching science.”

For Ng, the videos are a chance to help teachers rediscover the wonder inherent in opening students’ eyes — and minds — to new ideas.

“It invites them to fall in love again with what brought them into teaching,” he said. “The building, the discovering together.”

Check out the New Westminster Science Ninjas on Youtube

Slime Time

Flame Bubbles

Bottle Rockets

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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