If your housebound family needs a diversion, Kate Biberdorf — who has proudly adopted the snappy nickname Kate the Chemist — suggests helping kids have messy fun with science experiments.
The University of Texas at Austin chemistry professor and new author is a lively promoter for the value of her discipline and the joy it gives her. She’s made her case on “Today” and other TV shows and travels the country to get kids, especially girls, hooked on its possibilities.
Now, Biberdorf is adding a new chapter with her first books. “Kate the Chemist: The Big Book of Experiments” (Philomel Books, $17.99) has 25 entertaining projects for kids 8 to 12 who end up learning — shhhh! — about energy and matter.
Safe enough to do at home, the experiments rely on common products like dish soap and baking soda, with a dash of glitter thrown into the “puffy slime” formula. An adults-needed icon marks any experiments that require an adult’s supervision.
With Hillary Homzie, she also has written “Kate the Chemist: Dragons vs. Unicorns” (Philomel Books, $12.99), the first in a planned fiction series featuring a 10-year-old Kate as an intrepid problem solver. How could her school musical include a fire-breathing dragon if Kate couldn’t devise liquid nitrogen cheese puffs as a stand-in for flames?
Both books were released early in light of how stay-at-home kids and parents might be getting a little antsy at this point.
In an interview, Biberdorf talks about how her mom and one particular teacher nurtured her passion for chemistry growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and about what how she’s trying to do the same for new generations.
QUESTION: How did science capture your interest?
ANSWER: My mom saw that I liked to explore and maybe had an engineering side of my mind. So she cleared one bathroom and made it so everything was perfectly safe, and we could mix together shampoo and conditioner and soap and all this fun stuff in a huge, green bowl.
I’ve always been a little bit of a scientist and liked to see what happens if you add A plus B, what are you going to get? But it wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I realized chemistry was my true passion. I have to credit my teacher, Mrs. [Kelli] Palsrok. She made chemistry come alive for me.
Q: You said that the gender gap in the sciences grows as students advance and is widest at the Ph.D. level. Why is that?
A: There are a lot of reasons. If you’re a young girl, and you raise your hand and give an incorrect answer and a boy makes fun of you, that can have a crippling effect on your self-esteem. My mission is to get out there and talk to these girls so that they’re passionate about science. Then, when they do inevitably give a wrong answer, because we’re all human, they have enough confidence to not be knocked down and are still interested.
Q: Does the skepticism some are voicing about science concern you?
A: As the scientific community, we need to step up. We need to use our voices and our credentials to explain what’s happening. So, for example, with climate change and the coronavirus, if there are questions in your community about it, we need to be responsible scientists. We’ve got to make sure that the accurate information is going out to our communities.