Kids, say ‘howdy’ to a new teacher
With help from Big Tex, fried foods and more, free lesson plans emphasize STEM skills
Big Tex is going to be a science instructor this year.
Teachers and students who come to the State Fair of Texas will be able to use new lesson plans aligned with the state’s public school education standards. The emphasis is on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. But art and history get attention, too.
Topics include: “Fried Stuff: The Science Behind the Batter,” “Speeding Around: Determining the Speed and Energy of the Dentzel Carousel” and
“Sugar Rush! How Your Body Will Process That Fried Twinkie.”
The idea is that kids in fourth through eighth grades will be able to approach the fair with a purpose, with specific projects assigned by their teachers that can be pursued while chowing down on a corny dog or taking a selfie on the Texas Star.
The project, which cost about $40,000, was paid for by the fair and produced by local education nonprofit Big Thought.
Whether the concept will work won’t be clear until the fair opens Sept. 25. That’s because the folks who designed the lesson plans haven’t tested them with students. But about 90 teachers came to Fair Park last week to get trained on how to use the plans.
The project was cooked up by Jennifer Schuder, the fair’s vice president for marketing. When she was hired in 2013, she started thinking about how to emphasize education, she said. Some topics are evident: Agriculture and animal husbandry have been part of the fair since it started. But was there a way to use less obvious elements as tools for learning?
LeAnn Binford, director of the Big Thought Institute, quickly bought in.
“That place is the most wonderful learning environment,” she said.
So the concession stands are a way to gain financial literacy and knowledge of how businesses choose and price their products. The current Big Tex is an engineering marvel and a way to approach Texas history and culture. And then there’s the Woofus.
Jadyn Harris is a teacher who was Big Thought’s lead writer on the project. She started by taking a tour of the fairgrounds and wandered into agricultural areas that weren’t on her normal fairfun route.
The original Woofus was a one-of-a-kind statue and fountain installed with the first fair in 1936. It was a fanciful beast that combined a sheep’s head, a stallion’s neck, a hog’s body, turkey feathers and duck wings — all topped by the 10-foot-wide horns of a longhorn. The original vanished. A replica Woofus was created and installed outside the Swine Building in 2002. Harris was enthralled.
So the Woofus is central to a lesson on how animals and plants inherit characteristics and traits. He’s also mentioned in several other lessons.
“I became obsessed with the Woofus,” Harris said.
Every lesson plan lists the specific Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards it is designed to teach. The “Behind the Batter” lesson, for instance, is tied to standards that require students to be able to solve oneand two-step problems in- volving multiplication and division, and to predict the changes caused by heating and cooling materials.
Every lesson is also connected specifically to the standards that teachers should be working on during the first eight weeks of school.
“That’s what the teachers are needing to teach, anyway,” Harris said.
There’s multimedia material online for several lessons. The batter lesson has a video produced by the fair. Concession owners who were finalists in this year’s Big Tex Choice Awards were asked how they get batter to stick on so many kinds of foods. Their practical answers are more culinary art than sci- ence.
Starting this week, teachers should be able to download 41 curriculum selections for free from the bigtex.com website. The fair gives away about 1.7 million tickets to students and teachers every year. Organizers hope some of those teachers will choose to use the material. And that students will think the assignments are entertaining enough to shift them out of mindless fair fun mode.
A curriculum plan is going to have to be pretty special to get kids to buy in, Harris admitted.
“It’s going to have to be so fun and exciting,” she said. “They’ ll have to want to say, ‘Dang! I want to do this lesson.’ ”