Students learn the magic of science

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen makes jaws drop. Students go crazy watching her bounce a small ball atop a basketball or hold a vase of water upside down over a kid’s head without spilling a drop.

Despite the seeming impossibilities, Wheeler-Toppen isn’t a magician. Rather, she uses her Ph.D. in science education and background as a nonfiction writer to teach several basic concepts in a way most kids will find it hard to forget. At the same time, the lessons dovetail with the Fulton County Schools’ plan for increasing student achievement.

For example, the two bouncing balls: “The one on top is shooting way up in the air, farther than you’d think it could,” she said. “But that showcases momentum. But I don’t actually use that word; I talk about energy passing from one to the other.”

A vase full of water held over a student’s head with just a piece of thin paper preventing a catastrophe is all about air pressure. “When no air can get into the glass, everything is in equilibrium,” she said. “And we often underestimate that power. I also ask them about that thing on their heads right now that weighs as much as a baby elephant. It’s air. And yes, when it goes up 70 miles above our heads, that can apply as much pressure as a baby elephant.”

Wheeler-Toppen recently showcased her memorable approach to science during a day of activities at Spalding Drive Elementary in Sandy Springs. The overall theme: Go ahead, try this at home.

“I focus on activities that kids can do with materials likely to be around the house, and I talk about why they work,” said Wheeler-Toppen, who lives in DeKalb County. “I also tell them the story of how I became a nonfiction writer and talk about the [science writing] opportunities they may not be aware about.”

During her visit to Spalding Drive, Wheeler-Toppen delivered her message of amazing science by tailoring it to the age group, pre-K through fifth. That made a connection Principal Lynn Johnson wasn’t sure would happen.

“I was wondering if it was going to be dry or if the kindergartners would love it and the fifth graders wouldn’t,” she said. “But every grade loved it. They were so engaged and were excited to be involved and go up to do some of the experiments.’

Wheeler-Toppen also offers tips on where to find books on science experiments to try at home.

“I hear that the school library is busy for weeks after I come,” she said. “I love it when science helps get a kid into reading and when reading helps get a kid into science.”

But her most rewarding feedback often comes from the teachers in the back of the room, she admits.

“My favorite thing is when teachers put away whatever they’re doing and start paying attention,” she said. “That tells me they’re learning something as well.”


Each week we look at programs, projects and successful endeavors at area schools, from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H.M. Cauley at or 770-744-3042.