I hear the sounds of jazz as I enter the NSTA Exhibition Hall at 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 29, at the National Conference on Science Education in St. Louis. I’m just in time for the ribbon cutting that opens the Hall to a throng of eager educators. This year, the Hall offers 400 exhibits—one of the largest numbers NSTA has ever had, says President Linda Froschauer. A fourth-grade teacher from New Jersey tells me she comes to the Hall specifically to learn what materials other schools and teachers from other grade levels are using.
“I am amazed at the size of this place,” says Rebecca Teed of Dayton, Ohio. “There’s so much stuff we didn’t have before.”
Eighth-grade physical science teacher Elizabeth Boyce of St. Louis agrees. “I see things here that I didn’t see last year in Anaheim.”
The “star of the show” in St. Louis is the Toyota Partner Robot, who appears from behind a black curtain, walks onto a small stage, and waves to the crowd, many of whom respond by clicking the shutters of their cameras. The shiny white robot with flashing blue lights on its “ears,” “chest,” and “feet” proceeds to lift a trumpet to its “mouth” and play a medley of Disney tunes, including “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Whistle While You Work,” and the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club television series. The robot exits the stage to a burst of applause. A Toyota representative then tells the audience about the development of the robot and how it will eventually play a role in such areas as elder care and automotive manufacturing.
I approach a group of teachers who are watching David Carter demonstrate Vernier Software and Technology’s new LabQuest data collector. Carter explains that users do not need a Palm pilot or calculator to accompany the device. “Oh, I like that!” declares one teacher. The group enjoys the opportunity to touch the device and question Carter about it.
At the Blue Skies Ideas booth, which offers aerospace education activities and ideas on CD and in print, I meet Nola Wilkinson of Decatur, Illinois, who tells me she loves teaching about space. Wilkinson has come to the Hall to “get new resources, to meet people who can help me find new resources, and to meet scientists.”
I head for the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens Adventure Camps exhibit, which is featuring two different animal shows during the NSTA conference. Kevin Vincent of Basehor, Kansas, and I have an unexpected experience there: We get to touch “Mellow Yellow,” a yellow and white albino python with incredibly smooth skin. “This is really cool,” says Vincent, who comes to the Exhibit Hall seeking new ideas for hands-on science in his classroom. Other teachers ask questions about the snake, including how old it is.
At the Science Kit and Boreal Laboratories booth, teachers are registering for an “Around the Globe SKavenger Hunt Contest,” which will reward the winner with a digital camera “with a docking station,” notes one teacher. Also at this booth, you can make your own microscope slide.
Teachers at the ScholAR Chemistry booth reach into a glass bowl to pick up small packets containing a sodium chloride capsule and a mini Materials Safety Data Sheet. A St. Louis teacher says she looks forward to all of the free samples from the exhibitors, who also thoughtfully provide brightly colored shopping bags for collecting all these goodies.
I snag a freebie myself at the Texas Instruments booth. Being a CSI fan, I gladly accept their black t-shirt with the "CSI" on the front and a fingerprint and yellow crime-scene tape on the back. The representative tells me that teachers can find free forensics activities on http://education.ti.com/educationportal/sites/US/homePage/index.html and shows me the “Hot Air, Cold Body” activity, in which students use science and math to determine the victim’s time of death. Just ahead of us, another TI representative is offering teachers money-saving tips for purchasing other supplies to use with TI’s products.
PASCO Scientific’s booth has a big screen on which a GIS demo is being conducted. The facilitator, a sixth-grade teacher, indicates volcanoes and geologic features on the screen’s map. She explains how K–12 teachers and students can build a map by dragging and dropping layers, and how they can analyze the data. Other visitors to this booth are picking up free tornado tubes.
A Carolina Biological Supply Company representative alerts me that Carolina is hosting free interactive dissection sessions at their booth. I watch as six teachers don gloves and goggles and examine robust-looking preserved frog specimens, which don’t have the unpleasant odor of formaldehyde, explains the facilitator, because the company has developed a solution that doesn’t contain it. The teachers inquire about the composition of the solution. Then the facilitator walks them through the dissection, providing them with scissors and blue plastic tweezers—and teaching tips. “Have your kids tell you what parts of the frog are like theirs and which are not,” she suggests. She tells the teachers how to distinguish the male frogs from the females, why frogs have three eyelids, and why the frog’s tongue isn’t attached at the back. “This is so neat!” observes one teacher.
For educators who prefer “humane alternatives to once-live animals in the classroom,” the Exhibition Hall has booths for companies and organizations like the National Anti-Vivisection Society, which operates BioLEAP, a free dissection alternative loan program. BioLEAP loans “state-of-the-art models and computer programs” to students and educators; see www.navs.org for more details.
Standing next to me and watching the dissection is Delores Pepple, a retired teacher from the St. Louis public schools, who remarks, “Look at how engaged they are … This is like a play day for science teachers.” Pepple, who volunteers in her school district, says she comes to the Exhibition Hall to gather supplies and information to pass on to the teachers she assists. She adds that “there’s always something new to see and do at the Exhibition Hall.”
A sign at the Prentice-Hall Innovations booth reads “free $10 coffee gift card at each in-booth presentation from [fill in the blank]. (Hint: a massive, luminous ball of plasma + a male deer) … Aren’t you glad you’re a science teacher and you know what we’re talking about!” It finally dawns on me that the freebie is a Starbucks gift card. If I were a science educator, I would have gotten that much faster.
For-profit companies aren’t the only exhibitors in the Hall. Government agencies such as NOAA, NIH, and the FDA are there to inform educators about their services and products and answer questions. Everywhere I look teachers are lugging plastic bags featuring NASA's logo and stuffed to the brim with colorful free posters, CDs, and cloud identification charts.
And Vicki Arthur of the U.S. Forest Service’s Conservation Education Office aims to do much more than hand out free materials and answer teachers’ questions. Arthur says she also plans to “bounce ideas off of science teachers” for posters and curriculum her agency will eventually develop and distribute.
Teachers who need a break from browsing the tools of their trade can stop by the Best Soles booth to “test walk” the company’s glycerin-filled massaging therapeutic insole. This item promises “foot, knee, and back pain relief,” a welcome comfort to the tired teacher at the end of the school day. The Hall also has several Cyber Cafes with computers that allow attendees to check e-mail and surf the web. At a table covered with black drop cloths, teachers rest, eat, chat about the conference, and share their challenges with their colleagues.
On the shuttle bus back to my hotel, I hear a teacher telling her spouse, “They have so much to show you and give you—and this is only day one.” I think of all the other exhibits I would like to have seen and am comforted by the fact that I can always revisit the Hall each year, in every NSTA conference city. Once is definitely not enough.