I went to a children's birthday party today (they were about 7 years old) and I arrived late so I missed the introduction of the performer. She had the patter of a magician and she appeared to be doing magic tricks, but I soon realized she is not a magician at all: she's a scientist. She dazzled the children (and the adults!) with super-absorbent substances, chemicals used in fireworks that burn bright colors, refractive lenses that give light sources a rainbow effect, a Tesla coil(!), and more.
During all this I thought maybe she is a UC Berkeley science student who did this stuff as part of a class project. But something was wrong about that notion, because she's just too damn good. It's rare to see someone so thoroughly excellent at performance AND knowledgeable about science. She has stage presence and she really connected with those kids.
Her name is Dora Wedekind, and she's the Operations Manager at Mad Science of Mount Diablo. And she's making a difference. I think I can summarize Dora's work by just telling you one small thing she did. She brought up the word "conductor" and asked the kids to say what they thought it meant. Eventually she gave her definition, that it's a material that lets electricity (meaning electrons) travel through it easily. She then took out her trusty Tesla coil (after having explained that it, well, has a lot of electricity at the tip!) and asked them what they think will happen if she puts it near a piece of plastic. (Nothing.) What about a piece of paper? (Still nothing.) What about a piece of metal, like a pie pan? Wow! A cool-looking arc of electricity.
But what will happen if she puts a piece of paper on the pie pan? Will the electrons from the Tesla coil go through the paper into pan? Or will the paper stop it? "Who thinks it will go through the paper?" she asked. "Who thinks the paper will stop it?" And finally, and most importantly, "Who doesn't know? It's ok not to know. That just means we have to try it to find out!"
Indeed. And there we have the character of science explained in terms that 7-year-olds can understand. Sometimes we don't know things, and that's ok. It means we have to really look at how the world works to find out the answer, rather than just sitting around guessing. These kids wanted to know. I wanted to know. We all wanted to do some science.
So, will the paper block the arc of electrons from forming? I looked around the room as she asked this, pretty sure that the adults didn't know either. I started questioning it, too. I'd think that paper would not be enough to stop the arc, but did I know for sure? Not really. Well, it turns out the paper doesn't stop the arc. And if she leaves the Tesla coil in one place for long enough, it even burns a hole through the paper. She then showed what happens if you try this with magician's flash paper instead of regular paper: you get a big exciting burst of flame as the flash paper is entirely consumed! And while we're at it, let's look at that happen through some refractive glasses to see the interesting rainbow effects that surround the flame!
Dora is the real deal. She's "sparking imaginative learning," and not just because that's the tag-line of the Mad Science company. She's getting kids interested in learning and science before they become adults and forget how to be curious anymore. It makes me wonder: are the rest of us contributing enough?
If you're interested in getting Mad Science to get your kids interested in science with after-school programs, workshops, camps, or whatever else, you can check out Dora Wedekind's branch (Bay Area, California) here:
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Mad Science in any way. I'm just a random person who went to a birthday party. And an amateur scientist.