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Sharing Stories of Science and Learning from ASU

September 10, 2006

When the school year begins, Conrad Storad and his staff will help thousands of elementary and secondary students fly to Mars, shoot miniature lightning bolts from their fingers, and discover the dangerous properties of snake venom.

No, Storad isn’t Professor Dumbledore and the graphic artist and writers in his staff can’t get you a pass into Hogwarts. But they do offer something equally fascinating – a scholarly passport to Arizona State University, courtesy of ASU’s Chain Reaction Magazine. Thanks to this science magazine and its accompanying web site, kids can learn all about the amazing research done by ASU scientists – through eye popping photos, fun experiments, and easy-to-understand articles.

Storad is the director of ASU’s Office of Research Publications and has been editor of ASU Research Magazine for twenty years. He got the idea for Chain Reaction after he wrote several award-winning science and nature books for children and began visiting schools and libraries as a guest speaker during the mid 1990s. As he spoke with librarians and teachers, he saw the need for a quality science magazine geared toward younger readers.

“Learning resources are limited in many schools – a lot of teachers pay for supplies out of their own pockets,” says Storad. “And with all the required standardized tests placing so much emphasis on math, reading, and writing, science lessons can get left behind. Chain Reaction provides public, private and home school educators with a free teaching tool that keeps science in the classroom.” 

Teachers can use Chain Reaction in their curriculum because each issue focuses on a topic Arizona Science Standards require students to study. The four issues published to date have concentrated on weather phenomena, desert wildlife, the solar system, and urban ecology. Many Chain Reaction articles are also revised versions of science articles from past editions of ASU Research Magazine.  As a result, younger readers receive the same wealth of knowledge written at a sixth to ninth grade reading level.

Storad’s background as a children’s author gives him an insight into the types of unusual stories that can educate and entertain children. One article in an issue that focused on Sonoran Desert creatures spotlights ASU scientists who study the effects of snake bites and milk rattlesnakes for their venom. The Sonoran Desert issue proved so popular with students and teachers that Storad’s staff has updated and revised it three times. New stories, photos, and cover graphics are added to each version to keep it fresh for readers. To date, more than 250,000 copies of this issue alone have been snapped up by hungry readers around the world. 

“We like to say that naming the magazine ‘Chain Reaction’ was prophetic, because it’s started its own chain reaction,” says Storad. “Once one teacher at school gets it, I’ll hear from six more who want it.” He recalls that when the first issue was released back in 1998, his office printed 20,000 copies. In less than a month they were all gone.

Today over 3500 teachers in 43 states and 14 countries use Chain Reaction in their classrooms. The initial print run for each new edition is 150,000 copies – and they go fast. 

“Classroom teachers are putting the magazine to work,” says Storad. The results of a survey of teachers who use Chain Reaction showed that Arizona teachers who get the magazine tend to teach twice as much science in their classrooms compared to those who don’t. Several instructors also use the magazine for other types of lessons – including reading, nonfiction writing, and other language arts.

Chain Reaction also provides educators with an additional resource – an interactive web site that connects users to online articles, fun experiments, and learning games. Visitors can experience the hostile conditions of another planet by reading senior science writer Diane Boudreau’s article “When You Go to Mars”. They can learn how to harness static electricity and create miniature lightning bolts. And they can test their knowledge of animal tracks with “Sprain Your Brain” trivia. 

“The web site has great potential to create more two-way communication between ASU and the community,” says Storad. “A lot of teachers are using Chain Reaction resources to create lessons for their classes. I’d love for those teachers to put those lesson plans on our web site to share their ideas with others.”

In the coming months, readers can look forward to a new issue of Chain Reaction on biotechnology. Storad thinks this issue might serve as a primer for kids and parents who hear about bioscience and stem cell research on the news but don’t know what those things are. 

“That’s the job of the science writer – to make science appealing and understandable to the community,” he states. “We see ourselves as translators between scientist and reader. We want to show the community that research is exciting and expands human knowledge.”