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WATTS IT ALL ABOUT : Science Has Long Provided Sparks for Mr. Electricity

July 15, 1993|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

For realism and splashy effects, the 1960 cult classic "Dinosaurs" could never go claw to claw with "Jurassic Park." But, says Robert Krampf, it made a profound impact on his life.

"When I was 5, my parents took me to see 'Dinosaurs,' and that was it," recalled Krampf, founder of Robert Krampf's Science Education Co. in Memphis. "I've been a science nut ever since."

"Nut" may be an understatement. His childish interest in dinosaurs led to a lifelong passion for things scientific, one that would plot the course of his education, his career, even his day-to-day lifestyle. After earning a geology degree from the University of Tennessee and spending 13 years as a science instructor at Memphis' Pink Palace Museum, Krampf decided in 1987 to pitch it all to become "Mr. Electricity" and tour the country with a one-man show that he says proves once and for all that "science doesn't have to be boring."

Krampf begins a two-week stint at Costa Mesa's Launch Pad science center and the Children's Museum at La Habra, alternating three audience-participation science workshops: "Watt Is Electricity?" "The Nuts and Bolts of Lightning" and "Burning Questions: The Physics and Chemistry of Fire." Recommended for ages 5 and up, the 45-minute sessions are free with paid admission at both sites. Krampf will also perform private shows for patients at Children's Hospital of Orange County in Orange.

The guy goes to some pretty amazing lengths to make his point. Depending on which show you catch, you may find him shooting 16-inch sparks from his head and fingertips; enclosing a volunteer in a wire Faraday's cage, then zapping it with a million volts, or blowing up tubes of specially formulated dust.

"Explosions are always a big hit," he noted, laughing.

But, Krampf is quick to point out, although the effects may be spectacular, a Mr. Electricity show is no flash in the pan. Krampf says he fully explains the demonstrations as he does them, in understandable terms, and when possible invites audience members to help. The purpose, he said, is twofold.

"I'm very strong on education (and) explaining why and how these things happen," he said. "Making the audience a part of it helps make (the lesson) more real for kids; it makes them realize it's not a trick."

Plus, he noted, a higher level of understanding about such things as electricity and fire almost always leads to a greater respect for their potential danger.

"A study was done that said with about 50% of kids, especially preschool age, if you say 'don't do it,' you automatically set up a compulsion for them to do" something dangerous, Krampf said. "By explaining things, you're telling them, 'If you do this, this will happen.' "

Krampf says he exercises stringent safety measures in all his demonstrations and winds up most with a strong reminder of why observers can't do this stuff at home.

When describing Krampf, "home" is also a relative term. Since 1987, when he and his wife, Lisa, sold their home in Memphis, the couple have literally been living on the road. Behind their van, the couple tow a 32-foot trailer that serves as their home and office, as well as a traveling kennel for their 50-pound dog.

The trailer also houses the scientific equipment that Krampf uses in his workshops, including the million-volt Tesla Coil, which among other things, powers the Faraday cage and sparks-from-the-head demonstrations in "Watt Is Electricity?" and simulates sights and sounds in "The Nuts and Bolts of Lightning."

Occasionally, Krampf has interrupted his touring to answer the call of the limelight. He has appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman," CNN and "Fantastic Facts," an English television show he says is similar to Letterman's, "only the host is a lot nicer."

Like circus performers, Krampf and his wife set their touring agenda by the sun, booking dates in the warm climates in winter and cooler climates in the summer. Things don't always go as planned, however. Last Thursday, when the phone interview for this story took place, the couple had just begun a weeklong stint in Las Vegas, where temperatures were well over 100 degrees.

Despite occasional inconveniences ("Car trouble is the pits," he said wryly), Krampf says he plans to continue his traveling shows, possibly adding some European and Canadian tours. As he sees it, his shows help fill a critical gap in science education for children.

"I do workshops with teachers, and the most common thing I hear is that they have to work a chapter ahead of the kids in the textbook," Krampf said.

"Science teachers don't learn science in college," he declared. "They can take a three credit course in bulletin boards . . . (but) the science classes (universities) offer are so broad, the teachers don't get any meat. If that's the case, how can they make it interesting for their kids?"

Compounding this, Krampf said, is the fact that in this technological age, some children view scientific exploration as something that's "already been done."

"I want to get them excited," he said, "and show them that there are still plenty of things out there to discover."

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