For computer engineer John Cohn, science was a way to connect with his three sons. He never liked sports much so he put on science experiments at home, and the kids loved it.
That sparked an idea: If he could make science fun for children - if they could hear and see it - maybe he could dispel the myth that it's boring. Cohn started by making over his corporate executive image into a wizard of sorts, complete with tie-dyed lab coat, running sneakers and jeans.
When he stood before Sharon Corologos' fourth-grade class at Richmond Elementary School for a 45-minute presentation near the end of the school year, the young audience was captivated.
He threaded a dill pickle on two wires attached to a generator and zapped it with electricity, making it glow. Purple jolts of electricity crackled in the air, making 10-year-old Alison Desautels' hair stand on end.
"I love to share this. It's not that I want to go out and make every student a scientist. If you can get people to appreciate the beauty or wonder of it," Cohn said. "I'm hoping that ... some of the kids get jazzed by what they see in my shows, dig further, then pass on that love to others."
As more Americans pitched in to help their communities, the numbers of volunteers rose to 63.8 million last September, an increase of 4 million over the year before, the Labor Department said. Although the survey does not keep track of the number of science volunteers, more than 27 percent volunteer in education or to work with children.
For the last 12 years Cohn, a frizzy, gray-haired and bearded IBM computer engineer in his other life, has spent roughly three to fours hours a week performing in classrooms and museums. He wants to reach the children who are nonplussed or apathetic about science and says fourth through seventh grade is the best time.
Passion is key to getting the message across.
"The whole hope is if you can show your passion to kids, hopefully we can put these people on the right path," said Peter Delfyett, a professor at the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and a science volunteer since he was a graduate student.
"We need to promote science and technology. We have to show them role models, so they can say, 'I can do that, too,"' Delfyett said.
Mrs. Corologos' class was studying electricity when she invited him to visit Richmond Elementary. She had seen him perform for another class at the school, where his youngest son is now a student.
Cohn controlled the remote that directed a cart built from a friend's wheelchair. He showed the children what electricity looks and sounds like by generating lightning-like discharges from a tesla coil - a transformer he fashioned from a 3-foot-long section of sewer pipe, a dryer vent and old transformers.
And don't try this stuff at home, he warned.
During the demonstration, he mentioned the names of a few female scientists to counter the stereotype that science is for men. He even coaxed Alison, who wants to be an electrician, to place her hand on a generator that puts out about 400,000 volts of static electricity. Strands of her hair floated above her head as if she were underwater.
"Electricity is cool," she said.
It was just the reaction Cohn was looking for.
"I worry that people have sort of lost that curiosity, or (it's) been replaced by computers, computer games," Cohn said. "When I was a boy we took things apart."
Ten-year-old Gregory Potter's hand shot up when Cohn asked how to boost the strength of an electrical current. "A transformer!" he said. "I read about them somewhere."
Gregory loves computers; he's working on his own Web site and plans to write software one day. But after meeting Cohn he thinks he might like to be an inventor or an electrical engineer.
Mrs. Corologos believes that Cohn is expanding her children's horizons.
"He helps them think about the future," she said. "He's passionate about what he does."
When the demonstrations ended, Cohn asked the children to consider careers in science.
"Remember kids," he said, "this might be a fun thing to do when you grow up."
By Lisa Rathke