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A Volunteer Evangelizes for Science

To dispel the myth that the subject is boring, computer engineer takes fun experiments to the classroom.

August 15, 2004|Lisa Rathke | Associated Press Writer

RICHMOND, Vt. — For computer engineer John Cohn, science was a way to connect with his three sons. He never liked sports much, so he put on science experiments at home, and the kids loved it.

That sparked an idea: If he could make science fun for children -- if they could hear and see it -- maybe he could dispel the myth that it's boring. He started by making over his corporate executive image into a wizard of sorts, complete with tie-dyed lab coat, sneakers and jeans.

When he stood before Sharon Corologos' fourth-grade class at Richmond Elementary School for a 45-minute presentation, the young audience was captivated.

He threaded a dill pickle on two wires attached to a generator and zapped it with electricity, making it glow. Purple jolts of electricity crackled in the air, making 10-year-old Alison Desautels' hair stand on end.

"I love to share this. It's not that I want to go out and make every student a scientist. If you can get people to appreciate the beauty or wonder of it, I'm hoping that ... some of the kids get jazzed by what they see in my shows, dig further, then pass on that love to others," Cohn said.

As more Americans pitched in to help their communities, the number of volunteers rose to 63.8 million in September, an increase of 4 million over the year before, the Labor Department said. Although the survey does not keep track of the number of science volunteers, more than 27% volunteer in education or to work with children.

For the last 12 years, Cohn, a frizzy, gray-haired and bearded IBM computer engineer in his other life, has spent roughly three to four hours a week performing in classrooms and museums. He wants to reach children who are nonplused or apathetic about science, and says fourth- through seventh-grade is the best time.

Passion is key to getting the message across.

"The whole hope is if you can show your passion to kids, hopefully we can put these people on the right path," said Peter Delfyett, a professor at the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and a science volunteer since he was a graduate student.

"We need to promote science and technology. We have to show them role models so they can say, 'I can do that too,' " he said.

Corologos' class was studying electricity when she invited Cohn to visit. She had seen him perform for another class at the school, where his youngest son was a student.

Cohn controlled the remote directing a cart built from a wheelchair. He demonstrated what electricity looks and sounds like by generating lightning-like discharges from a Tesla coil, a transformer fashioned from a 3-foot section of sewer pipe, a dryer vent and transformers. Don't try this at home, he warned.

During the demonstration, he mentioned the names of a few female scientists to counter the stereotype that science was for men. He even coaxed Alison, who wants to be an electrician, to place her hand on a generator that puts out about 400,000 volts of static electricity. Strands of her hair floated above her head as if she were underwater.

"Electricity is cool," she said.

It was just the reaction that Cohn was looking for.

"I worry that people have sort of lost that curiosity, or [it's] been replaced by computers, computer games," Cohn said. "When I was a boy, we took things apart."

Gregory Potter's hand shot up when Cohn asked how to boost the strength of an electrical current.

"A transformer!" he said. "I read about them somewhere."

Gregory, 10, loves computers; he's working on his own website and plans to write software one day. But after meeting Cohn, he thinks that he might like to be an inventor or electrical engineer.

Corologos believes Cohn is expanding the children's horizons. "He helps them think about the future," she said. "He's passionate about what he does."

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