Innovators Daniel & Dennis Gibbs: The Wow Factor

Dennis and Daniel Gibbs set a STEM career path
Photos by Scott Buschman

It’s time to fire the vortex cannon, and a hush falls over the high school and elementary students assembled. There is no explosion or boom. Instead, the cannon quietly emits giant smoke rings that float over the schoolyard.

The cannon isn’t just blowing smoke. It’s teaching students about the relationships between volume, pressure and the stability of rotating objects.

When students utter “wow!” it means the cannon has what it takes for the Imperial Valley Discovery Zone (IVDZ), a unique science center created by Dennis and Daniel Gibbs, with help from CTA’s Institute for Teaching. IFT, which funds educators’ innovative ideas, awarded their project $20,000 in 2015-16 and another $10,000 in 2018-19.

Dennis and Daniel Gibbs flank the vortex cannon. Spandex cloth pulls back to suck air into a steam-filled vessel. When it is released, foggy air is ejected, forming a ring-shaped vortex.

“While every exhibit our students create has some underlying STEM concept, every exhibit also has to pass the wow test,” explains Dennis. “In addition to being fun, science should make kids wonder and tap into their innate curiosity so they want to learn more.”

The fraternal twins teach at Imperial High School and grew up in nearby Brawley. Dennis, the older by three minutes, teaches science classes with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and Daniel teaches a career pathways course. The Imperial Teachers Association members created the center at Ben Hulse Elementary School, across the street from the high school. The goal is to have high school students build exciting, hands-on projects that get elementary students in this agricultural community excited about science when they visit.

The IVDZ incorporates elementary school STEM instruction, covers the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and provides exciting educational opportunities beyond the regular classroom environment for youngsters, many of whom are low-income English learners. There’s a 3-D printer, robotics activities and coding lessons. In addition to operating during school hours, the IVDZ is available for community use after school.

“I like it because I get to ask lots of questions,” says fourth grader Yarely Vasquez. “We get to do experiments and figure out if something works or not. I love doing robotics.”

“Explainer” Brenna Rollins with Jett Vindiola, Ashlyn Mass, teacher Daniel Gibbs, and Yarely Vasquez.

Thirty high schoolers, who are recruited from Dan’s science classes and receive vocational education credit, are leaders in the program. These “explainers” help in training 180 of their peers, who deliver specific lessons to elementary students.

“I love it! It’s my favorite class,” says explainer Eric Gomez, 18. “I love interacting with the kids and introducing lessons. I love watching their faces light up when they begin to understand something.”

The explainers benefit as much as the young students, says Daniel, who shares that some teens are considering teaching careers because they enjoy it so much. They attend community events such as fairs and farmer’s markets, and since 2018 have engaged more than 12,000 community members through interactive science projects.

Among things the high schoolers have created for IVDZ:

  • A sand bed that teaches about solids and liquids. When millions of sand grains in the container are agitated with air and shaking, the entire mass behaves like a liquid and flows. Steel ball bearings sit on top of the sand until it is “fluidized,” and then they sink, demonstrating how liquefaction of soil occurs during earthquakes.
  • An acoustic levitator with sound waves projected from different angles. When the sound waves intersect, the high and low pressures suspend small pieces of plastic foam in the air.
  • A life-size game of Operation.

“It’s so exciting to see how hands-on learning has transformed science instruction,” says Josh Phillips, 18. “When we come up with a bright idea, one of the Mr. Gibbs will just say, ‘Build it.’”

Our 2019-2020 Innovation Issue

Daniel & Dennis Gibbs are two of the innovative educators we highlight this year. Meet the rest:

The Gibbs brothers have created more than 40 original NGSS science lessons so far for IVDZ, and are proud of the way it’s changed science instruction within the district. The program has bridged elementary, middle and high school science lessons and increased teacher collaboration districtwide. It has also shown students possibilities that exist beyond Imperial Valley, where agriculture and prisons are the primary source of employment.

“We started doing this six years ago,” says Dennis. “And now we’re starting to see a tsunami of critical thinkers along with increasing STEM literacy in our district. It’s wonderful to see students excited about science.”

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