D.C. 2020 Teacher of the Year Justin Lopez-Cardoze, who teaches 7th-grade science at Capital City Public Charter School.

D.C. 2020 Teacher of the Year Justin Lopez-Cardoze, who teaches 7th-grade science at Capital City Public Charter School.

D.C. Teacher of the Year Justin Lopez-Cardoze knows that any kid can grow up to be a scientist.

Scientists are simply curious people who like to ask and try to answer questions about the world around them, he says.

Wonder why some cereals get soggy faster than others? That’s thinking like a scientist. Build a block tower to see how high it can rise? That’s playing like a scientist. Notice that the moon looks different every night? That’s observing the universe like a scientist.

Lopez-Cardoze joins Kojo to talk about how kids can discover the scientists in themselves, and how they can do some fun science projects — safely – in their own homes. He’ll also take kids questions about the novel coronavirus and anything else in science they may find puzzling.

This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!

Produced by Lauren Markoe


  • Justin Lopez-Cardoze 2020 D.C. Teacher of the Year and 7th grade science teacher, Capital City Public Charter School; @2020DCTOY


  • 12:32:20

    KOJO NNAMDIYeah, now I'm taking a breath. Justin Lopez-Cardoze loves teaching science at Capital City Public Charter School. He loves finding science in the world around him, and most of all, he loves bringing out the scientist in every kid he meets. Those are just some of the reasons he was named the 2020 D.C. Teacher of the Year.

  • 12:32:39

    KOJO NNAMDIJustin is our guest on a new type of Kojo Show on Mondays that's Just for Kids. He's here to explain how he welcomes science into his life. And we'll find out how you make science part of yours. For any adults listening, you can keep listening, but on Kojo for Kids, we take calls from kids, only. Justin Lopez-Cardoze, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:33:02

    JUSTIN LOPEZ-CARDOZEThank you so much for having me. How are you doing today?

  • 12:33:04

    NNAMDII am doing well. Justin teaches 7th grade science at Capital City Public Charter School. You say kids are already scientists, but may not realize it, Justin. What do you mean by that?

  • 12:33:14

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEYeah, so as kids grow up and, you know, begin exploring the world, they inevitably become scientists. And it's really interesting, because at the beginning of each year, I run a lesson in my classroom where we define what scientists look like. So, I have the kids close their eyes, and I have them imagine: who does science? Right? So, think about their age, think about their race, think about their gender, think about what they're wearing.

  • 12:33:40

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEAnd then we come together as a class and we interrogate, okay, so where are these images coming from? And, at the end of our groups, we discuss, okay, so who in here imagines themselves as being a scientist before us coming together into this big group? And it's really sad to see, but very seldom do we see students raising their hands and say, yeah, that's me who I imagined being a scientist.

  • 12:34:01

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEAnd so as kids grow up and as they, you know, go through school, as they, you know, go through home and experiences with their friends and their families, they still develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become excellent scientists. So, we are all scientists at heart, and we can all be scientists, regardless of who we are and what we look like.

  • 12:34:21

    NNAMDIIf you're a young person, what are you learning in science right now? Justin, kids in this area have been learning at home for weeks now. How do you teach science when you're at your house and your 83 students are in their homes?

  • 12:34:34

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEYeah. So, right now, I'm giving students review assignments. I want them to make sure that they're reviewing the necessary concepts for life science. So, that way, when they go into the classroom in the 8th grade, they have a strong foundation in cells and ecology, genetics and evolution. And so I'm giving them assignments through the Google Classroom.

  • 12:34:56

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEAnd I have the opportunity of seeing my kids four days a week, for about an hour, to support them in life sessions. And, you know, I'm giving them calls, I'm texting them, having video chats with them, going beyond the academic responsibilities to make sure that, you know, I'm checking in on them and seeing how they're doing, because I miss them so much. You know, the kids become like family to me, pretty much, overnight every year that we have, you know, new 7th graders. And so I miss them terribly but know that they're doing well and that reaching out to them has been a really big point of relief for me during this pretty hard time.

  • 12:35:35

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you still somehow get to each lunch with your students. How does that work?

  • 12:35:42

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEYeah. So, a couple of times now, we have started video chats where we're able to market the kids, hey, you know, if you want to sit down and hang out, you know, we'll have a bunch of teachers on the video chat. They'll click in, and then we're able to each lunch. So, we had one at the beginning of our quarantine where many teachers came in, but I've been texting and calling students during my lunch break and have been saying, hey, are you available? Let's talk, let's eat, let's chat.

  • 12:36:11

    LOPEZ-CARDOZESometimes, at the beginning of my office hours I'll start it off with, you know, just talking about how they're doing and, you know, what they've been up to. And it's been nice. It's been nice to connect with kids during this time, given the flexibility that they have a lot of the time, now. And it's just -- it's great. So, I do miss them, but I've had time to catch up with them.

  • 12:36:38

    NNAMDIJustin, what are some science projects kids can do at home now?

  • 12:36:43

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEYes. So, there are a couple that immediately come to mind. There's one really cool experiment that I do at the beginning of the year. So, when I'm teaching kids about the cell membrane, so we're composed of trillions and trillions of cells. And, you know, each of those cells needs a layer of skin, so to speak, to protect what's inside of them. So, that way, they can stay alive. But because it's so small, it's impossible for us to see with the naked eye what these membranes look like and how they behave.

  • 12:37:14

    LOPEZ-CARDOZESo if you want to see how some membranes work to protect everything that's inside of the cell, what you can do is you can take a solution of water, dish soap and Karo. And you make a solution, and then you're able to see how the membrane of a cell works. You can make bubbles and see, right, what does the film of cell membrane look like? Is it always moving? Yes. Are you able to repair it? Yes. So, that's a really good experiment to try with examining properties of bubbles, because they're really similar to how cell membranes really work.

  • 12:37:54

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEOf course, you have the traditional creating a volcano at home. You take baking soda and vinegar, baking soda having a chemical called sodium bicarbonate, and acetic acid, which is found in vinegar. And when you mix those chemicals together, you'll see that a gas, carbon dioxide, bubbling will occur. You can create your own volcano and, you know, make a volcano out of papier-mache and take a tube or a small glass and decorate the papier-mache around it and then put those ingredients in with a little bit of red food coloring to emulate what lava looks like.

  • 12:38:36

    NNAMDIWell, I don't know what the weather is like where you are right now, but your line seems to be breaking up a little bit. Has it started to rain or thunderstorm where you are?

  • 12:38:46

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEYeah, a little bit.

  • 12:38:48

    NNAMDIOkay. Well, you're sounding great again now, and I was just doing that to delay you, because I'm writing down everything you say right here to conduct these experiments at home myself. (laugh) Justin, anyone who takes your class is going to learn about photosynthesis, which is how plants use sunlight to make their food. But they're going to learn it with a song that you wrote. I hear students who took your class years ago are still singing that song in the school hallways. So, can you sing the photosynthesis song for us?

  • 12:39:18

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEYes, sir. (laugh) So, it's one that I made up when I was in the 6th grade with a really good friend of mine. And I always -- you know, I let her know every year, like, hey, (laugh) you know, I'm doing the photosynthesis song with my kids, so (laugh) here it goes. It's really simple, but it's simply the equation of photosynthesis. And it goes (singing) 6CO2 plus 6H2O plus light energy yields (unintelligible)...

  • 12:39:50


  • 12:39:50

    LOPEZ-CARDOZE...6 plus 6O2. And the kids love it. They love it. Like, they all -- when we're learning photosynthesis -- I work in a hall with both 7th graders and 8th graders. And, occasionally, (laugh) like, an 8th grader or a 7th grader will (unintelligible) hall at one point singing it when we were going to recess. So, it's just really funny, and it's a good way for kids to remember the equation of photosynthesis.

  • 12:40:15

    NNAMDIOkay. On to the phones, now. Here is Jada, in Maryland. Jada, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:23

    JADAHi, Mr. Justin, this is Jada Cox. I wanted to ask what opportunities do kids get that could possibly spark a scientific interest?

  • 12:40:36

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEYes. And, Jada, I recognize who Jada is, because she is the daughter of my amazing principal, (laugh) Mrs. (word?) Cox. So, Jada, it's so nice to hear from you. So, a lot of the opportunities that happen in my classroom on a daily basis where kids are exploring with laboratory techniques and thinking about, you know, what does it look like to get my hands on something where I'm exploring something scientifically or how to clean water? You know, we were talking about what are the differences between the Anacostia River and the Potomac Rivers, and how can we build feasible ways to clean our river water?

  • 12:41:19

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEAnd so I make sure to connect what we're doing in class, Jada, with community, and as well as getting students involved in meaningful projects. So the expedition that I run for the 7th grade every spring is maintaining an organization that is student-created called Genvoz, which empowers teenagers of color to express themselves and how they are living with rare genetic disorders. And so my students have the responsibility of educating the community on what genetic disorders are, as well as being able to (unintelligible) folks that are within the community where rare genetic disorders are important for them. (unintelligible) I do in order to inspire kids to stay invested in science.

  • 12:42:09

    NNAMDIThank you so much for your call, Jada. Justin, you might want to switch phones. We're going to call you on your phone in a second, even as I say to Jada, thank you so much for calling, Jada, and good luck to you. We're getting a few other calls, but we can take still more. We're talking with Justin Lopez-Cardoze. He is the 2020 D.C. Teach of the Year, 7th grade science teacher at Capital City Public Charter School. Let me go now to Frankie in Washington, D.C. Frankie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Justin, are you back?

  • 12:42:42


  • 12:42:42

    NNAMDIOh, good. Then, Frankie, it's your turn.

  • 12:42:45

    FRANKIEWhat's inside a black hole?

  • 12:42:49

    NNAMDIGood question, Frankie. (laugh)

  • 12:42:52

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEFrankie, thank you for that question. So, that's a pretty loaded question, (laugh) so let me...

  • 12:42:59

    NNAMDIYep (laugh) .

  • 12:43:00

    LOPEZ-CARDOZE...let me describe what I can remember from my physics inclination. And, if of any reason, I'm a little inaccurate, I have my good old friend Ms. Hardy who I work with, who would be able to reach out to you, who is the physical science teacher. But what is inside of a black hole? Well, my answer is dark matter. So, when you have a black hole that is forming, and it's essentially taking in all of the matter that is existing around it, it turns it into a really, really, you know, I guess I can describe it as like a weightless nothingness. (laugh)

  • 12:43:49

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEAnd it turns into what's called dark matter. That is the answer that I have for you, (laugh) and hopefully, I didn't completely destroy that answer, but it's been a while since I've taken physics. (laugh)

  • 12:44:01

    NNAMDIFrankie, thank you for your tough question. Justin, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser came to your school to present you with the D.C. Teacher of the Year Award, but the whole school somehow managed to keep it a surprise from you until the second she called your name. How'd they pull that off?

  • 12:44:17

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEI had no idea that was going on. And, you know, I don't think that many people knew, other than my principal and my partner, and then my mom. And they had known, I think, since August, and they were trying to figure out, okay, so how are we going to let Justin know? And, you know, it was completely under wraps up until, you know, it was marketed as a celebration for our PARCC scores, because one, our kids are amazing, and they've always been amazing. But, two, there was a large improvement in our PARCC scores from the last school year to this current school year.

  • 12:44:57

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEAnd so, yeah, the whole -- all of the kids were in the theater and, you know, I remember sitting down in the middle of the theater, and just so excited for the kids. And, you know, our cheerleaders were up there. We had our music students playing the drums. And then the mayor started talking about, you know, students, you are amazing. You should be very proud of yourself, and then she started talking about teachers. And she kept on talking about teachers. And I was, like, why are we still talking about teachers? (laugh)

  • 12:45:29

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEBut then I realized when she said, there's one teach in particular who we want to recognize, and then I was like, mayor, teacher, (laugh) and then my mom and dad come from behind the stage, and that's it. And I was a complete mess.

  • 12:45:45


  • 12:45:46

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEAnd my life has been changed ever since. (laugh) So...

  • 12:45:50

    NNAMDIWell, your award came at $7,500. You could have kept all that money for yourself, but you didn't, even though you had student loans. What did you do with it?

  • 12:46:00

    LOPEZ-CARDOZESo, I took $5,000 of that, and part of me wanting to become Teacher of the Year, a big motivational factor was to fulfill a dream of mine, which is founding a scholarship. You know, I have a really personal story that's connected to wanting to found a scholarship, but I decided that once I became the Teacher of the Year, that I would use $5,000 to start a scholarship. And, you know, given all of the support from, you know, my Capital City community and the support that I've gotten from Pam McKinney, who set up a site where the community can match the contribution that I made, because originally, I wanted to get it up to 10,000.

  • 12:46:44

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEBut from help from the community and the Washington Post's support, we were able to create a scholarship, an inaugural scholarship worth $20,000. And...

  • 12:46:54

    NNAMDIThat is absolutely wonderful.

  • 12:46:56

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEThank you.

  • 12:46:57

    NNAMDIJustin, we're almost out of time, but I wanted you to answer this question from Kate in D.C. Kate, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:47:04

    KATEHow old were you when you started to like science? What sparked your interest?

  • 12:47:12

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEHow old was I when what? I'm sorry, can you...

  • 12:47:13

    NNAMDI(overlapping) When you started to like science, what sparked your interest?

  • 12:47:18

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEOh, (laugh) well, I'll say this. I will say that I started really, really becoming interested in science when I was in elementary school. I didn't necessarily find it interesting when I was in the classroom. Of course, we did really cool things, but it was the stuff that I was doing outside of the classroom. You know, even -- I remember going to the grocery store with my mom. And they used to have these coupon dispensers, where you could pull things out. I liked getting my hands on things and trying to figure out how things worked.

  • 12:47:53

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEAnd so my true love for science happened right when I decided to graduate and go into college. I was able to learn about chemistry, which is the science of chemicals, and seeing how, you know, when you take one chemical and mix it with another what happens. To me, that became a huge passion of mine in college. And I followed it into, you know, saying I actually want to teach this stuff.

  • 12:48:23

    NNAMDI(overlapping) And like they say -- and, Kate, as they say, and the rest is history. Justin Lopez-Cardoze is the 2020 D.C. Teacher of the Year and 7th grade science teacher at Capital City Public Charter School. Justin, thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you.

  • 12:48:37

    LOPEZ-CARDOZEThank you for having me, Kojo. Take care.

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