Guest Column

Hailing Mr. Wizard: My Connection With Students Through Science

by Nic Clement

During a lunch visit at one of our elementary schools, I sat with a table of students in an attempt to pick their brains about how we were doing as a school district.

The students were eager to share their opinions ranging from needing better phys-ed equipment to more classroom computers.

Although I wanted to spend more time listening, I knew I was no match for the recess signal. Then the unexpected happened: four students stayed at the table, sacrificing valuable tetherball time, to ask me a simple question, “What do you do as superintendent?” After a long pause and some stammering, I told them I worked with their principals to make their school a great place to learn. As I gazed into their glazed-over eyes, I immediately sensed my answer did not connect. I knew I was in real trouble when one student responded, “That’s nice,” and they all bolted to recess.

That was a defining moment in my first year as superintendent. The students’ puzzled looks haunted me for days. They had quickly and powerfully brought me face-to-face with the ultimate terror I had been warned about by mentors and professors when making the leap to the superintendency after 26 years as a teacher and building administrator. I knew I needed to take action before the dreaded “disconnect syndrome” spread.

Sharing a Passion
My prescription was the creation of the Superintendent’s Science Challenge. The challenge begins each Monday when I e-mail all the district 5th- and 6th-grade teachers two science questions. I develop these questions based on the state’s science standards and try to create excitement and inquiry among the students. One of my first questions was “Name the world’s only cold-blooded mammal.”

The students have all week to develop their answers before the teachers forward the responses to me each Friday. I respond as quickly as possible with feedback, including clues if the answer is not correct. At the end of each five-week period, I visit classrooms that have successfully completed the challenge and award the winning classroom with a special science-based activity kit.

Primarily, this activity enables me to connect with students by sharing my passion for science. I was fortunate to have a number of Mr. Wizard-type elementary teachers, and my 1966 Elementary Grand Prize Science Fair Plaque hangs proudly above all my degree certificates and awards on my office wall.

At the same time, I did not want the program to trigger negative side effects. I didn’t want to look like a superintendent who was micromanaging principals and creating more bureaucracy for classroom teachers. I’ve now run the Superintendent’s Science Challenge for three years, and I think several positive outcomes have measured up to this goal.

Staff Commitment
The weekly challenge was designed to minimize additional teacher work, maximize student participation and avoid upstaging the principal as the instructional leader. It’s flexible and allows teachers to integrate my questions into the daily lesson plans or use them for extra credit and enrichment for individual students.

The use of e-mail makes the program paperless, and I handle all record keeping.

The classroom visits and awarding of the science prize by the superintendent has evolved into a critical connector. The kits, funded through a private donor, have included solar-powered cars and robots, carnivorous plant terrariums, snap circuit boards and owl pellets.

During the award presentation, I recognize the students for their hard work and often hold a brief discussion about the most challenging questions. Because I also want to allow students to ask me questions, once a semester we stage a “Stump the Superintendent” week with the students e-mailing me questions that I need to answer by Friday.

Momentary Mayhem
At times, I conduct a small experiment related to some of the questions or take some time to help the students explore their prize. The most popular Superintendent’s Science Challenge prize was the space-age ant farm, which included live ants shipped in a small test tube with explicit warnings about not touching the ants.

The setup of the ant farm in one class definitely violated my desire not to create more work for the teacher. I allowed a 5th-grade student to shake the vile of ants into the farm; about 20 ants missed the farm and landed on the table and the floor, and one even went down a student’s shirt. Not exactly the connection I was looking for, but no students or ants were hurt, and the incident provided teacher-lounge laughs for at least a day.

The Superintendent’s Science Challenge has given me — a superintendent who still craves interactions with students — a prototype for connecting in an innovative, instructional way with young learners. Understanding there are limits, the rewards of having a student refer to me as the “SSC dude” when he saw me in a grocery store is, as the credit-card commercial goes, absolutely priceless.

Nic Clement is superintendent of the Flowing Wells School District in Tucson, Ariz. E-mail: