August 19, 2012

New show turns science into something of beauty

A scientist and former Miss Massachusetts hopes to get kids excited about the world around them.

By LINDSEY ANDERSON The Associated Press

BOSTON - The scientist trots onto the stage, shaking hands with a crowd of kids along the way. In her white lab coat and sparkly tiara, she will teach them about the solar system, but first takes a quick question from the audience: how to do a pageant wave.

click image to enlarge

Erika Ebbel Angle, “Dr. Erika,” left, and her sidekick Don explain the order and relative sizes of the planets in our solar system during taping of the “Dr. Erika Show” in Norwell, Mass. Two episodes are currently available for free online and in New England via Comcast On Demand.

The Associated Press

Answer: Wave toward the right with the left arm and to the left with the right arm.

"We wave this way because ..." the biochemist beauty queen begins.

"Armpits aren't pageant-y," the kids finish.

The scientist is Erika Ebbel Angle, former Miss Massachusetts. Ebbel Angle, who has a doctoral degree in biochemistry from Boston University, is the star of the "Dr. Erika Show," a new 10-minute educational program aimed at getting kids excited about science.

"It's important for children to understand that science isn't this one area; it's the material that your car's made out of, it's the chair you're sitting in, it's your iPhone," she said. "Science is in everything. To be able to think like a scientist or to be able to ask the right types of inquisitive questions, that just helps you; that's a life skill."

Ebbel Angle, 31, said the series aims to show kids, especially girls, that being a scientist doesn't preclude having a life outside the lab.

Science is often seen as a serious and dry subject, said Hazel Sive, associate dean of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Science.

"Any kind of strategies that change that perception for kids is really great," Sive said. "We need them to solve the problems of the world, and making them understand how cool science is is very important."

Ebbel Angle and her husband, robot design company iRobot founder Colin Angle, teamed up with Comcast to launch the show.

Two episodes are currently available for free online and in New England via Comcast On Demand.

"As a company focused on innovation, it's a natural fit for us to support exciting programming that endorses and reinforces the importance of science and technology in our society," Steve Hackley, vice president of Comcast's Boston region, said in a news release.

Ebbel Angle is not paid for the series.

In mock talk-show style, she helps students whose science fair projects have flopped, showing them where they went wrong.

The young students tell Ebbel Angle about their failed projects in a black and white "Science Fair Nightmares" segment.

One student couldn't remember the order of the planets. Another had trouble using static electricity to remove lint.

Ebbel Angle explains why the projects went wrong, and the students try them again, ending in their "ah-ha moments" set against a groovy background.

Ebbel Angle got her own science start in sixth grade.

On a family trip, she learned that mortally injured crocodiles flip themselves belly-up and commit suicide.

Keeping the reptiles in mind, she decided her school science project would test whether cells commit suicide when infected by viruses.

She called labs in her native California asking for help, and one scientist gave her a chance.

Together, they tested to see if cells commit suicide when infected with herpes (the least lethal virus the lab had).

Her results: inconclusive.

The next year, it was testing whether traditional herbal remedies were effective against the virus.

"I said, 'I'm going to do this experiment,' and the rest is history," she said.

Now, Ebbel Angle brings "real, live" scientists into classrooms with her nonprofit Science from Scientists.

Each week, scientists chosen for their charisma teach lessons in public and private schools, aiming to make everything from rocks to energy engaging and understandable.

Ebbel Angle is also in the process of launching a biotechnology company.

At least two more episodes are expected for this fall.


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