From chemist/academic to writing science books – why RATATAZ?

From chemist/academic to writing science books – why RATATAZ?

By Rebecca Woodbury Keller

From chemist/academic to writing science books – why RATATAZ?

I've been sharing on this blog about RATATAZ and its use as an at-home science kit, as well as in the classroom. But, what led me to develop RATATAZ, how did I get here? RATATAZ is built from over 20 years’ work in writing Real Science 4 Kids

I started writing Real Science 4 Kids books based on my own experience in school. I made good grades in high school and felt every bit prepared for college, but when I sat in my first college chemistry class, it was abundantly clear to me that I had no real understanding of the topics being discussed and was far behind my peers. I flunked my first chemistry test. I could have quit there, deciding science wasn’t for me. 

I felt like I just wasn’t very smart. 

Thankfully, I did not spend a lot of time in that stuck mindset. I was lucky to befriend a student from Los Alamos who coached me throughout the rest of that freshman class. Once I built some  experience and confidence, believing I could pursue my dreams of becoming a scientist – an oceanographer, actually – tackling challenging new courses and subjects became easier. As it turns out, though, I get horribly seasick! So, graduate school at the Florida Institute of Technology became a doctorate in biophysical chemistry in New Mexico. The lab doesn’t move! 

How did this lead to RATATAZ? 

Years after college, when I was searching for science textbooks for my kids, I realized more about why I flunked my first college chemistry test – I had had no “real” science in high school. Memorizing the periodic chart to perform well on a pop quiz is not the same thing as understanding how the periodic chart works, why it’s arranged that way, what it means, etc. I wasn’t asking questions that would lead to true understanding.  

And, I was experiencing this frustration in a new light, as a parent, seeking a science source from which my kids could truly learn and explore. This was the driving force behind writing a science textbook series - with actual chemistry and physics as foundational topics for young students. Real Science 4 Kids – a publication series in use for the last 20 years. 

Yet, as time went on, I felt something was missing. I had created a solid textbook series, but I still couldn’t figure out how to “bottle” the lessons from my graduate school experience – and inspire kids to get excited about doing science. 

Graduate school is all about experiments. Play. Learning through questions, trial and error. For the first time in many years I had the freedom to “play” in the lab. I knew it had to do with questions, but whose questions? 

Then, I took a professional education course through the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And the pieces of what I had been trying to formulate for years began coming together. 

It was all about getting kids to ask and answer their own questions. This is what engaged ME as a graduate student!  

Asking my own questions and exploring is why I stuck with science. It is what drove my passion to bring this open curiosity to kids. For the first time, I had the freedom to ask and answer my own questions and pursue my own scientific interests. 

So how could we bring this to kids?

Through our established Real Science 4 Kids community, I spent time researching expanded questions, answers, and exploration. Then, we offered science activities in an online platform for families during the pandemic shut down – with incredible results. 

I recall one student in particular only participated on the periphery. She didn’t want to do any videos. But, she was following what her brothers were doing, and at the end, produced a video where she presented what she had learned. I was astonished when she finished, saying, “I had the most fun I’ve ever had in a summer and now I can ask questions like the boys!” 

She was dazzling. Proud, beaming, and confident. 

RATATAZ – Read. Ask. Test. Answer. Tazzle. 

When kids present in a manner that is fun for them, it helps them retain what they learn. This is sometimes referred to as “retrieval practice” in educational circles. Tazzle is a fun word I created, meaning “talk, tell, and dazzle.” It encourages kids to get creative, share their discoveries, and believe in their own science ability. 

The students who RATATAZed online with us during the pandemic, and shared what they learned in their own talk, tell, dazzle manner, learned more about their specific science subjects than we ever could have “taught” them. It was fun, engaging, and rewarding. 

RATATAZ utilizes a modification of the Question Focused Activity that I learned from the Harvard course, in addition to student directed competency-based activities and retrieval practice to get kids interested, engaged, and able to transfer that knowledge to new situations. In a nutshell - it works. 

I invite you and your students/children to RATATAZ with us!