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Monday, June 20, 2011

WRITING STUFF FOR BIG AND LITTLE KIDS: First Work-for-Hire and Non-Fiction Sale – “Dive Into Darkness”

A good friend of mine is a GREAT science teacher who had moved from the classroom into an administrative position. He got a call one day from the Science Museum of Minnesota asking if he wanted to be one of the science teachers to work on a project with the Museum, Argonne National Laboratories and a television show called THE NEW EXPLORERS. Argonne and NEW EXPLORERS produced television programs showcasing the “hottest” scientists working in the real world today, emphasizing underrepresented individuals in challenging fields.

With the Museum and a group of local teachers, they were looking to create school curriculum to use alongside the broadcast episodes.

He said he’d love to, but he was extremely busy – but he had another person in mind who was a pretty OK science teacher and was a writer to boot.

That person was me.

The Science Museum took the bait and hired me for a summer to view the unaired episode, meet the researcher – Dr. Jill Yaeger, who had discovered the first totally new class of animal of the 20th Century – and with a group of kindergarten through high school teacher to write curriculum that would involve both the television show and the Museum.

Working as a group, we toured the Science Museum of Minnesota numerous times as well as visiting the Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park – both the public tour and a more complex private tour. We watched a large part of the Museum’s IMAX movie collection as well as spoke with Dr. Jill Yager. We pulled together ideas for experiments as well as developed ones we’d never seen before designed to introduce concepts important to the TV show. For example, with another teacher, I devised a way of creating a thermal/halocline in a 2-liter soda bottle using green colored, icy cold salt water and transparent, hot fresh water. I had to write it up, have my partners vet it for fact and efficacy then draw sketches and make a step-by-step plan that was easy to follow. As well, we had to test every lab created then write material connecting the labs back to the television show.

We were expected to provide about 600 pages of information, labs, experiments, background material and everything from simple fact-recall questions through teamwork synthesis questions and research projects. The questions that directly related to the content of the movie were easy and took up about 400 pages. What would we do for the rest? Become creative: how to make caves from Jolly Rancher® candies; learn underwater sign language (there IS no such thing, I had them learn regular sign language – and had to draw the pictures of the hand alphabet myself in order to avoid complicated usage and licensing costs). We had to write scenarios for students to role-play, create art projects, and compose both factual and fiction writing projects as well as create more challenging science experiments and questions for students who were gifted and talented.

Research (in the days before easy internet access) followed discussion and long writing sessions. Jill Yager flew in from Ohio to speak with us at length and we took copious notes, incorporating them into a “speaking to the scientist” kind of interview as well as a set of questions I wrote asking students what they would do “If you were Jill Yager and…” something happened. They were to discuss the situation and brainstorm.

Of course, this was a work-for-hire situation and I was paid when we concluded. HOWEVER, this little project gave me a pair of perks. One I’ll talk about next time, but the other was being nominated for and receiving the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Association of Science-Technology Center’s 1994 Teacher of the Year…my only comment there is, “Sweet!”

What I learned #3: When you’re lucky, do everything you can to make the most of it!

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