Give thanks for all the Mr. Wizards
June 12 marks the passing of Don Herbert, best known as "Mr. Wizard."
Mr. Wizard was a teacher shared by millions. His career spanned six decades, first enriching the baby boomers in black-and-white and then color on NBC, then another wave of their children on Nick, then another wave into the 90s on DVD and a TV series for educators. We can all name a teacher who influenced us greatly, one whose demonstrations inspired and shaped the path we walk today, one whose explanations made clear what was once opaque. (I'm still having recurring nightmares about my high school physics teacher throwing chalk and erasers at me because I wasn't paying attention, but I'll be darned if I don't hear his voice every time I perform an equation's estimate in my head.)
Herbert's calm yet fun demeanor can be traced back to the Midwest. Although born just outside Minneapolis, Herbert graduated from Central High School in La Crosse in 1935, then from the La Crosse State Teacher's College in 1940, which became UW-La Crosse. With degrees in general science and English, he actually wanted to be a drama teacher. Moving to Chicago, he played on NBC radio in shows such as Jack Armstrong and Captain Midnight, then wrote dramatic scripts, then became a science reporter.
The first episode of Mr. Wizard appeared on Chicago television in March 1951, quickly growing in popularity. Within two years, it was required homework viewing in 290 schools. Within three years, there were more than 5,000 Mr. Wizard school clubs with a membership of more than 100,000. The series ran until 1965, revived again in '71-72, then again in the 80s on Nickelodeon, then again in the 90s as a series for educators.
Mr. Wizard begat Bill Nye, Beakman and Alton Brown, but more significantly, he spurred an interest in science and its application among millions of boys and girls. Hebert credited the success of the show to the one or two kids who'd join him in conducting the demonstrations.
Inspiring kids has such profound effects; the smallest thing can stick with them for the rest of their lives. I know I still have the slice of dino bone given to me by a Milwaukee Scout leader at least 40 years ago. I still have the manual from my favorite chemistry set - an old 50s set I used in the 70s, bought at a Shorewood rummage sale. I treasure my collected volumes of the Boy Mechanic books. They're kind of a cross between Mr. Wizard and the Boy Scouts, published in 1915 by Popular Mechanics magazine. Back then, the corner drugstore carried all sorts of dangerous chemicals for some hairy experiments that'll singe your eyebrows.
That's why I take great pleasure in giving presentations to elementary school classrooms on science-related topics. I cart my array of microscopes into classrooms, showing kids the critters in pond water. I was stunned to hear they'll teach a unit on microscopic life, yet there wasn't a microscope to be found in the entire school. I schlep tubs of my fossils to the summer library program to show kids what lived in Wisconsin millions of years ago. I give them packets of small fossils. I say it's to help start their own collections, but what I'm really hoping is to plant a seed for an appreciation of science. They don't need to grow up to be scientists, but they do need to know about how science is done. I've done less than a dozen presentations in a decade, but I regularly hear from kids who remember presentations I did at the start.
Last fall, I had a chance to thank one of those Mr. Wizard types in person, too - a professor Robert Greenler from UW-Milwaukee who organized the "Science Bag" series of demonstration lectures for the public for many years. He was autographing copies of "Chasing the Rainbow: Recurrences in the Life of a Scientist", his latest book. Another great demo-ing Wisconsin professor is Bassam Shakhashiri of UW-Madison and his "Science is Fun" lectures.
"Science" isn't a just noun used as the name of a class that some kids dread. Mr. Wizard showed how "science" is a verb. Seeing science done is fun!