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FOR THE KIDS : Showering Students With Information About the Weather : Moorpark High teacher's writings are full of simple experiments that educate youngsters.


Tom Baker's obsession with weather goes back to when he was about 5 years old--the time his older sisters locked him out of the house during a rip-roaring thunderstorm.

"It scared the hell out of me," said Baker, a Moorpark High School teacher. But the wonder of it all apparently made quite an impression, because he has just published his second book on weather experiments that kids can do.

The book, "Two Suns and a Green Sky," is a collection of 22 experiments that explore weather in an out-of-this-world fashion by asking questions like: Why is the planet Venus so hot, even on its dark side? (His first book, "Weather in the Lab," was published last year.)

The books are a good source of ideas for kids faced with the what-to-do blues when science fair time rolls around each year. The experiments are generally for kids in middle school and above, but younger kids would be intrigued by seeing them performed.

That was the case recently when Baker hauled a couple of his experiments to the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Ventura for a little show-and-tell session. Before the afternoon was over, he had about a hundred kids believing that weather is more than, well, just weather.

"You've got to see this," he said, corralling one little boy at his table full of beakers and other gizmos. Baker's exuberance about weather borders on frenzy.

"Just flip the switch," he said, pointing to a vacuum pump with a glass cover containing a marshmallow, a bowl of dishwashing soap and a jar of rubbing alcohol. After the air had been sucked out, the soap bubbled up, the alcohol boiled wildly, and the marshmallow had puffed up--only to shrivel up with a poof when air was returned to fill the vacuum.

Miraculously, the jar of boiling alcohol was stone-cold. Although the young children gathered around him might not have understood Baker's explanation about air pressure, they were impressed.

"Science should be like that," Baker confided. "They're excited."

Children won't need a vacuum pump or any expensive equipment to perform the experiments in Baker's books. Baker is a big believer in garage sales, and some equipment, like a glass fish tank to house an experiment, can often be found cheaply in someone's front yard.

His experiments are labeled if extra safety precautions are necessary, like adult supervision, gloves or goggles, or avoiding eye contact with lights. Each one lists materials needed, procedures, observations, questions, diagrams, charts, and, in the case of the second book, what implications the conclusions have for the Earth.

Take the question about the planet Venus. The book suggests that since the planet is plagued with extreme wind and flying dust and sand, maybe the friction from the blowing particles is partly responsible for the planet's heat. So the experiment involves using a vacuum with a blower nozzle to blow sand in a sealed fish tank, and then recording temperatures. Then the book asks how all this relates to forest fire dangers.

And, going to the other extreme, there is the experiment about icebergs. Since icebergs are a menace to ships, would the ice melt faster if the water was less salty or more salty?

"What if--you always ask what if," Baker said.

What if Baker, 36, had not been a teacher? In fact, he has already been a number of things: a Burbank police officer, an engineer for a Los Angeles radio station, a technical writer for Northrop Corp., and he even spent some time as a treasure hunter in the Caribbean.

In 1986, he became a substitute teacher and eventually landed a job as science teacher at Westlake High School. His teaching was interrupted by the Desert Storm conflict in the Mideast, during which he served as a radioman with the U.S. Coast Guard. Currently, he teaches math at Moorpark High School and is working on a third book about weather for kids.

"I'm a fanatic about weather," he admits.

His inspiration is his 8-year-old daughter, Noel, to whom he has dedicated his books. Together they talk about weather a lot, trading "what ifs," which sometimes lead to new experiments.


* READ ON: Thomas R. Baker's two books, "Weather in the Lab" and "Two Suns and a Green Sky," are published by TAB Books, a division of McGraw-Hill Inc. They sell for $12.95 each.

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