By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published April 22, 2004
A puff of smoke rings wafted over students seated on the floor of St. Joseph School’s cafeteria as hands shot up in the air, swatting at the cloudy gray circles.
On April 2, the cafeteria was more than just a place for food and fellowship. The room had been transformed into a science lab, and its eager students had become geologists, chemists and physicists.
It was a special day, one that the school had prepared for since October—the arrival of The Discovery Channel’s “Jake’s Attic” host, Steve Jacobs.
Jacobs was on hand for an assembly at St. Joseph’s, where Joseph Stunzi, winner of The Discovery Channel’s “America’s Top Young Scientist of the Year” award, is in the eighth grade. Joseph won first place last October for his original science project on “the effects of cell phones on pacemaker patients’ hearts,” as well as for the skills he demonstrated during the Discovery Channel’s Young Scientist Challenge National Competition in Washington.
Sister Mary Glackin, IHM, principal of St. Joseph’s, welcomed Jacobs to the school.
“We have been waiting since October for your visit,” she said. “Joseph has told us a lot about you, and we are excited to see Joseph work with you.”
Throughout the school, signs hung welcoming Discovery Channel staff, especially Jacobs. “Welcome Mr. Wizard!” read a large banner in the room.
“Today is a day that we are all here to celebrate,” she said.
The school band then offered a song dedicated to Jacobs, as the clash of cymbals and the blare of horns filled the room.
Jacobs started right off with humor.
“I know we are here to celebrate Joseph, but I was the one who got you out of class,” he said, as the students cheered.
A kindly man with a gray beard and glasses, Jacobs gestured to the banner that referred to him as “Mr. Wizard.”
“That’s right, I am a wizard. I am wizard number four,” he said. “And I am looking for wizard number five. I was excited to come here because I know that Joseph is a special person and that he had to come from a special place to learn what he has learned.”
The “wizards” that Jacobs referred to included Michael Faraday, who lived in the late 18th and 19th centuries and coined the word “science.” The most recent “wizard” before Jacobs, he said, was Don Herbert, who hosted “Mr. Wizard’s World” for decades, ending in the early 1980s. Herbert, Jacobs said, passed the torch to him, and it was now Jacobs’ job to meet “wizards in training.”
Holding a simple cardboard box with a large circular hole and a plastic trash bag fastened to one of the flaps on the other side of the box, Jacobs asked the students what a puff of air would look like. Waving the plastic bag flap, he fanned the students with the air.
“How could we see what a puff of air looked like?” he asked them.
“Use food coloring,” said one student.
“You should somehow use smoke,” said another.
“A-ha!” Jacobs said, and, placing a “smoke cookie” in the box and lighting it, he created the circular puffs of air.
Scientists, he said, have to “predict.”
“And what is predicting? It’s making a guess based on past experiences,” he told them.
Asking for volunteers, Jacobs called up two boys and a girl and asked them how many pretzels they could eat in a minute.
The boys, trying to prove their strength, suggested numbers in the 20s, while Jacobs dutifully doled out the salty snacks and started his watch.
The group valiantly shoved the pretzels in their mouths, at a much slower pace than they had predicted.
“Do you see how important predicting is?” Jacobs asked. “Most people don’t think before they make a prediction, so they just make guesses. In order for scientists to predict, they have to do research.”
Pretzels, Jacobs told the students, contain sodium salts that absorb all the moisture in a person’s mouth.
“I’ve tried this experiment with great big football players, and even they can’t eat more than five,” he said.
Throughout the assembly Jacobs performed various experiments as the students continued to make predictions. Through it all, Joseph, with his big blonde curls, happily served as his faithful apprentice.
The students participated and laughed, learning that science can be fun.
Jacobs encouraged them to be keen and observant.
“Scientists have sharp eyes, but they don’t only observe with their eyes, but they observe with their eyes and their brains.”
And the students were surprised to learn that another of their skills might help them to become better scientists.
“Every single scientist I know does something artistic,” he said. “It was my study of music that really taught me how to focus. And I bet Joseph here wouldn’t be half of what he is if he wasn’t such a talented singer. It taught him how to focus.”
As he wrapped up his presentation, Sister Mary Glackin expressed her thanks to Jacobs.
“Thank you for stretching our imaginations today,” she said.
Wendy Stunzi, who proves Jacobs’ artistic theory by holding a doctorate in music and chemistry, said that having Jacobs there was a treat for all the students, not just for her son Joseph.
“I’m very humbled by the opportunity that The Discovery Channel has provided for all the children,” she said. “This experience was a gift in itself.”