Dirtmeister inspires kids with science

Dirtmeister Steve Tomecek demonstrates static electricity with a volunteer’s hair (photo by David Gordon)

Dirtmeister Steve Tomecek demonstrates static electricity with a volunteer’s hair (photo by David Gordon)

You don’t need an expensive laboratory with beakers and test tubes to practice science, says Steve Tomecek, known to kids across the country as “The Dirtmeister” from his appearances on Magic School Bus, Sesame Street and ABCmouse.com.

Approximately 75 children, many sitting on the floor almost at his feet, came to see Tomecek’s show at the library on June 15 and watched in awe as he apparently defied the laws of gravity and physics, then showed them how he did it .

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The atmosphere in the library meeting room was about the opposite of a staid classroom. Tomecek had the kids laughing, shouting out answers and cheering. But the high noise level was the result of enthusiasm, not disruption. These kids were learning, and they were excited with learning.

The term “Dirtmeister” was given to Tomecek by co-workers in his day job, he said. “I’m a geomorphologist, which is a complicated way of saying I spend a lot of time studying dirt and the old things that you find in it like dinosaurs and things like that.”

He skewered a balloon with a long needle without breaking it and held up a board with a bathroom plunger. He asked: Why does a balloon cause a young man’s hair to rise? Most of the audience knew the answer to that one; “static electricity,” they said, almost in chorus. But many other experiments had them baffled until Tomecek explained them.

Tomecek deplores science shows that warn kids “Don’t try this at home.” He encouraged the children to try all the experiments he was showing them, even suggesting some he hasn’t done himself. For instance, a packet of soy sauce can be made to sink or float in a plastic bottle of water by squeezing or releasing the bottle. That, he explained, is because the packet is not completely full, and the small air pocket allows it to float until the plastic bottle is squeezed. “Does that work with duck sauce or ginger packets?” he said. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried them, but you could try it and find out.”

While the experiments he demonstrated are suitable for children to do, he warned the audience that they should have an adult overseeing the operation. “That way, if anything goes wrong, you can blame them,” he said.

“Librarians and teachers have this certain power called telekinesis. They can sense when kids are doing things they’re not supposed to do,” said Tomecek. To demonstrate their mental powers, he called up children’s librarian Stephanie McElrath to perform an experiment in telepathy. By focusing on a glass tube [in this case a glass eyedropper] in a bottle of water — known as a Cartesian diver — Tomecek was holding, she was apparently able to make the instrument rise and sink purely by concentrating on it. However, as Tomecek explained, the trick is based on squeezing the bottle, compressing the air in the diver and causing it to sink.

Tomecek promised that he would blow things up during the show, and he kept his promise by blowing up balloons — not exactly what the kids were expecting. Balloons served to demonstrate air pressure, static electricity and grip, as when he pierced a balloon with a long needle without breaking it because the rubber gripped the needle tightly enough to form a seal. The needle could only penetrate the balloon without breaking it close to the bottom and at the very top, where a dark spot shows the rubber is not being stretched. The air is pushing against the sides of the balloon, and the air pressure at the ends is close to the outside air, eliminating the force that explodes the balloon, while the needle blocks the holes.

The final section of the demonstration concerned sound, with dancing Rice Krispies, metal bowls as gongs, the amplified sounds of actions not normally heard and demonstrations of how sound depends on vibrations.

Finally, Tomecek and a volunteer from the audience, Kevin Lettow, stretched a Slinky toy across the room. As Lettow flicked the springy toy, Tomecek held a microphone to the other end producing a sound very much like a Star Trek laser weapon when Lettow flicked the spring.

Tomecek gave the library several autographed copies of his books before leaving.