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'Mythbusters' star: Bring back band, shop class if you want better test scores

Here’s one way to teach physics and the principle of pressure and force — a bed of nails. Adam Savage, who is settling down on the bed of nails, says he wishes more teachers had the materials to teach lessons this way. 
Published Apr. 16, 2015

In a week when Florida students were logging on to another round of standardized tests, one of the stars of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel clearly touched a nerve.

"If you want the kids' test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get kids actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test," TV personality Adam Savage said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

Savage, who works with partner Jamie Hyneman on the science-based hit show, was promoting their live performance coming April 23 to Tampa's Straz Center, and his comment exploded on Twitter. A Times tweet of his quote drew more than 245 retweets within 24 hours, plus hundreds of favorites and comments on the value of teaching problem-solving and creativity.

The reaction seemed to underscore not just the public's exasperation over testing but the frustrations of science, art and music teachers who need expensive materials or who see their subjects de-emphasized because so much time is needed to get ready for tests.

Savage said STEM, the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, should be STEAM "because you need art in there to complete an education."

After getting his start in special effects, he and Hyneman have turned Mythbusters into Discovery's most popular show by blowing things up and building crazy gadgets that use scientific methods to prove or debunk rumors and myths.

Savage said he is excited about the growth of robotics competitions, the makers movement of do-it-yourselfers and a variety of people from diverse backgrounds "getting interested in science by getting your hands dirty."

While Mythbusters can teach physics with a paintball machine gun, Savage said it's a shame that lack of funding keeps science teachers from doing more of these kinds of fun experiments in the classroom.

Nancy Misuraca, a fourth-grade teacher at Brooker Creek Elementary in Tarpon Springs, was thrilled when Pinellas County started after-school STEM academies last year, where students design and build robots or construct an alligator to learn about the motion of its jaw, among many hands-on learning activities.

The academies got so popular that there were waiting lists for the 1,100 slots at the 54 elementary and middle schools that offered the program, said Laura Spence, the STEM coordinator for Pinellas schools. So this year the program tripled in size, thanks to a combination of federal and local funds for 3,000 students in 92 schools. Some schools still have waiting lists and lotteries to get into the once-a-week program.

Spence agrees with some of Savage's thoughts about hands-on learning and test scores because 30 percent of schools with the academies saw an increase in math test scores and 41 percent saw an increase in science scores.

"Tests are an important factor to help determine the success and areas of need within a curriculum," Spence said. But she also feels "it is the hands-on daily STEM experiences that make the content relevant and retainable for students."

Back in the classroom, Misuraca admits she has used her own money to buy the supplies so her students could make root beer with dry ice or build marshmallow towers with toothpicks. Misuraca, who was named her school's teacher of the year in 2013, wouldn't say how much she spends but estimates most science teachers spend a couple of hundred dollars of their own money every year.

"My PTA has helped me immensely. I could not run this program without them," she said. It was PTA money that bought supplies to make solar-powered cars.

"The kids put the cars together and some didn't work, some went backward or not in the right direction," Misuraca said. "It was amazing to see these children get hands-on learning and come up with a solution, and then we put the cars in the sun and the car takes off."

Next the kids will measure speed, and change variables to make the cars go faster or slower.

The teacher and the Mythbuster had the same word for this kind of science: storytelling.

"Scientists are just storytellers using a methodology that is incredibly rigorous," Savage said. "The best science is an offshoot of story, finding something you want to know more about and having an opinion in the encountering. The storytelling is in how you break things down into bite-sized steps and come up with a solution."

Misuraca said that an upcoming expo for Pinellas County STEM academy students will be "unlike a traditional science fair, more like a storyboard."

When told that Savage used almost those same words, she said, "Exactly! I want it to be more like a story line," with pictures and video as they tell the story of how they built and tested their solar cars.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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