Science for Hire

If there is a danger in our current free- market idealism, it is most clearly seen in commercial education. Once touted as a sign that PBS was obsolete, The Learning Channel spent only a few years challenging its viewers before scrapping serious documentaries for World's Most Dangerous Police Videos and The Secret World of Professional Wrestling. A CEO's responsibility is to increase shareholder profits, so when presented with the option of running a show on either Fermat's Last Theorem (as Nova did) or the more popular reruns of Unsolved Mysteries, it's clear where the duty lies.

Thus when brothers Ariel and Ron Shlien began the edutainment company Mad Science Group in 1990, you had to question whether any real learning was going to occur, and if so, how long it would last. The duo started out selling helium neon lasers to local DJs before creating a high-energy stage show for private birthday parties that eventually landed a running gig on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. They've already tiptoed dangerously close to the line: The publication Selling to Kids cited a deal the Canadian company made with Ombrelle sunscreen to teach the harm of UVA rays in schools. What is a CEO's obligation when offered a more lucrative contract to champion a chocolatier's self-funded findings on the nutritional value of cocoa butter? To turn that down requires recognizing the longer-running value of credibility.

Don't Try This at Home is the franchise's answer for a generation that may be incapable of ingesting anything without 3-D graphics and surround sound. It features two energetic Toronto actors in the roles of Professor Pruvitt and Crash, who lie on beds of nails, break slabs of ice on their bellies with bowling balls and set off some spewing chemical reactions for good measure. One bit has children from the audience running in circles on stage to revving rock music to demonstrate how molecules behave at different temperatures: quickly for hot, more slowly as it grows cold.

There are obvious limits to educating through rock concert histrionics. Some learning actually requires cracking open a book. But the show's host, Moody Gardens, already understands the delicate balance between entertainment and education; the Galveston attraction survives by convincing parents it's worthwhile to force reluctant kids to drop their joysticks and sacrifice a day of their summer vacation for a sizable admission fee. Unlike other private enterprises such as, say, Space Center Houston, which no longer seems to make any pretense at justifying its arcade, here there are actual scientific ideas in the air. More important, the kids love it. They laugh and make a cross with their arms as they cheer on the next "X-periment."

At one point Dr. Pruvitt slips a balloon into a canister of liquid nitrogen to show how it shrivels up in the cold. "What do molecules do when it's cold?" the actors ask their little volunteer with perfect comic timing. Here's the real test to see whether kids walk away remembering anything more than the antics and jokes. The girl mumbles and rolls her eyes. "Slow down?" she asks. Yep, something stuck.

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Dylan Otto Krider