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August 29, 2007

Purdue helps teacher add science to students' iPod playlists

"Dr. Carlson's Science Theater"
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Students may add iPods to their school supplies list this year to take advantage of educational podcasts available through iTunes.

Matt Carlson, a science teacher in West Lafayette, Ind., produced 30 podcast episodes, digital video files distributed on the Internet that can be played on portable media devices and personal computers. The videos are available free of charge at  and on iTunes, and each lasts about five minutes.

Carlson was one of two teachers selected in 2006 for Purdue University's annual Research Experience for Teachers program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program allows educators to be involved in research or to access university resources to expand their knowledge and improve educational tools, said Stephen Durbin, a professor of physics and principle investigator for Carlson's Research Experience for Teachers program. The teachers also are awarded a $500 grant for equipment and a $1,050-per-week stipend.

"We were impressed by Dr. Carlson's interest in using technology to reach students on their playing field," Durbin said. "The majority of students ages 12-17 have an iPod or some other portable music and video player. We think it is great that a teacher is tapping into this resource and taking a fresh approach to inspire and retain students in the sciences."

Carlson worked with the Department of Physics to create podcast episodes of "Dr. Carlson's Science Theater," a program he began in 2005 that explains various scientific principles and offers entertaining demonstrations. He used a teacher grant from the Lilly Foundation to create the first episodes, which aired on the Harrison High School student-produced television program. Carlson was limited to short segments and quickly ran out of demonstrations to perform, he said.

Purdue's physics department allowed him full access to its catalog of hundreds of demonstrations and provided the equipment and space to perform and tape the podcasts.

"The quality of the demonstrations is the key to engaging students, and I would not have been able to achieve the necessary quality without assistance from the department," Carlson said. "By creating podcasts of some of the most interesting and dramatic demonstrations, we can reach students at an earlier stage in their education."

Carlson aims to engage students before they reach high school and are able to choose whether or not to take science courses.

"Some of the most exciting areas of science are covered later in the education track, after many students have decided to stop pursuing science," he said. "We need to show students how cool science can be before they make that decision."

Podcasts reach students through the Internet, an arena where many spend a large portion of their time. By taking science outside the classroom and putting it into a familiar setting, it becomes more accessible and less intimidating to students, Carlson said.

"The education experience needs to evolve as generations become more technologically savvy, and educators need to keep up with their students in that respect," he said.

While personalities like Bill Nye the Science Guy target grade-school students, Carlson targets students in middle school.

"This is the age where most students decide if science is fun or not," he said. "It is a pivotal point. In addition, by targeting this age group I can reach the entire population. It won't be over anyone's head, regardless of if they have a background in science or not."

Carlson also created podcasts with Purdue faculty members to illustrate careers in scientific research.

"Students think of professors as giving lectures, but in reality that is only a small part of what they do," he said. "I wanted to show students the research going on and the interesting things professors of science do. There are many opportunities for careers involving science, and I want students to be aware of what is out there."

Carlson completed his Research Experience for Teachers program this summer but continues to make podcasts to enrich education and inspire future scientists. If the opportunity arose, Carlson would not be opposed to creating a television show to reach a larger audience, he said.

The podcasts also are available through Carlson's Science Theater Web site:

More information about the Research Experience for Teachers program is available online at

Writer: Elizabeth Gardner, (765) 494-2081,

Sources: Matt Carlson, (765) 743-1280,

Stephen Durbin, (765) 494-0706,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Matt Carlson performs a demonstration during an episode of "Dr. Carlson's Science Theater." Carlson worked with Purdue's physics department to create video podcast episodes of his educational program for middle school students. The free videos are available through iTunes. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photo is available at

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