Bob Pflugfelder and TEDxAsburyPark volunteer Anthony Longhitano talk about “Inspiring Science Through Moments of Chaos”, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019.
Anthony Longhitano: Welcome. This is Expert Open Radio, and I'm Anthony Longhitano, a volunteer with TEDxAsburyPark. Today we are talking with Bob Pflugfelder, who is a speaker at this year’s TEDxAsburyPark conference, which will take place on May 18th.
Anthony Longhitano: Welcome, Bob.
Bob Pflugfelder: Hello, Anthony! Good to talk to you.
Anthony Longhitano: Likewise. I'm glad you could be with us this morning. Why don't we get started? Maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and the topic that you're going to be speaking about at this year's conference.
Bob Pflugfelder: Sure. My day job is actually as an elementary school science teacher, which is somewhat unique, but every now and then I get to go from an audience of 25 or so to an audience of millions, doing science demonstrations on nighttime talk shows and daytime talk shows and presentations. And so I'm going to try to bring a little bit of that science fun to Asbury Park.
Anthony Longhitano: That's great. We're looking forward to it. And what is the title of your talk?
Bob Pflugfelder: The title of the talk is “Inspiring Science Through Chaos,” and the whole idea of being able to embrace chaos for a TED Talk came from realizing that in many of the demonstrations that I do, especially on television, chaos is almost a given at some point in my demonstrations. We looked back at about 15 different appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and one of the constants in all of those segments was that things flew through the air. It may have been foam, it may have been film canisters, it may have been ping pong balls, but things flew through the air! And whenever things fly through the air, there's bound to be a little bit of chaos. Turns out that amongst all that chaos, you can actually find opportunities to teach.
Anthony Longhitano: And specifically how does that become an opportunity to teach?
Bob Pflugfelder: It's interesting. When you go on a talk show like Jimmy Kimmel Live, they have a green room. And that show actually has a very famous green room. It holds 30 people and it has visitors and guests and they have a little open bar. My friends that hang out in the green room during the show tell me that while the celebrities are talking to Jimmy, most of the people in the green room are chatting. But when I come on to do the science demos, it tends to quiet down and people actually start watching the show. We tried to figure out why that was, and I think that is because they know that anything can happen and that there’s the potential for something big and something messy to happen--and therefore, they want to pay attention. For a teacher, just getting your students’ attention is a huge task, so if you can use the chaos or the perception of chaos to actually get someone's attention, you now have an opportunity to try to teach and inspire.
Anthony Longhitano: That's a very interesting idea. How did you get interested in science?
Bob Pflugfelder: Well, I wasn't particularly a “science kid” growing up. I was actually more of what today might be called a “maker” kid. I was the one taking apart the VCR to find out how it worked. I was the one building contraptions in my basement, and for Halloween, we had a haunted house every year. I would have plastic skeletons on pulley systems, and I'd rig up lights to flash. So I sort of had that in my background. But ultimately, scientists and inventors are problem solvers. So I used my knowledge of tinkering as a way to come up with interesting science demonstrations and inventions, and it turns out people enjoyed them, so I continued to share them.
Anthony Longhitano: And how did you come to use science demonstrations as a means to interact with and educate people?
Bob Pflugfelder: I've always been interested in science, and I started a website and would write up science demonstrations. The feedback I got from people who visited my website was that I really needed to have some videos, and that means that you need things that are visual. So I immediately started looking for visual and exciting science demonstrations, and I kind of got addicted to that. There are a couple of standard ones, and then you kind of run out, and that's when the fun starts because you have to start inventing your own way of presenting things. Now I have a shop and I go and build things and I learn skills to be able to create crazy inventions and share science concepts. And it's probably the most fun job you can have.
Anthony Longhitano: It sounds like it's great. Do you use these demonstrations as part of your day job when you're teaching your students?
Bob Pflugfelder: Yeah. In a micro scale, I do. Unfortunately, I don't always have the budget that the tv networks have, but we have our “Day of Explosions” at my school, where we get to show all sorts of different kinds of combustion. And things definitely fly through the air. Science is definitely messy and unpredictable in my classroom, but I think that's what builds those teachable moments.
Anthony Longhitano: And is there a specific subfield in science where you find that these demonstrations are more effective?
Bob Pflugfelder: Chemistry and Physics are where you get the most visual demonstrations; Biology, not quite as much. But, for example, we used a chemical reaction recently to set a brand new Guinness World Record for the most foam created from a chemical reaction, and then we've used physics to make a Tesla coil- triggered, ethanol-powered film canister Gatling gun. So again things fly through the air.
Anthony Longhitano: And what level of interest in science are you seeing in your students or in your audiences in general?
Bob Pflugfelder: Well, interest in science is really picking up now. You look at shows that have been on the air like Big Bang Theory and Mythbusters Juniors and Cosmos. So it's kind of in the air. There's an appetite for this kind of information and knowledge, but in the schools, it's morphing. It's becoming more of a innovation and inventing and tinkering world out there. So a lot of schools now are starting maker spaces and libraries have maker spaces, and it's about the innovative process. So now we're using the tools and methods of science to try to innovate and find ways to change the world.
Anthony Longhitano: And do you find that you have the flexibility as a teacher to integrate these demonstrations into the standard school curriculum or do you have to do it as an add-on?
Bob Pflugfelder: Well, it depends of course on what you're teaching. Certainly if I'm teaching a unit on Chemistry, then that's going to be a lot fun. And even if you're teaching things like forensics, there are all sorts of really interesting tools and methods and chemistry and techniques that forensic scientists use that are a lot of fun. So I think there's room for it in any science curriculum.
Anthony Longhitano: And is there a particular demonstration that you've done or that you do that is especially memorable or especially effective with your audiences?
Bob Pflugfelder: I would say one of my favorites is using liquid nitrogen, which is a very cold liquified gas, and boiling water to demonstrate how a cloud is made. And what I like about it is it's literally a visual and accurate demonstration of how a cloud is made, and you end up with an actual cloud. But not just a cloud, when you do it right, you can make a cloud that is 40 feet tall inside of an indoor space, and because it’s very big, it's very dramatic.
Anthony Longhitano: Do you want to share with us any other previews of some demonstrations that might show up at our event on May 18th?
Bob Pflugfelder: I don't want to spoil too much, and of course we're still working on the details. But I will tell you that this TED Talk will probably start differently from any other Talk I've ever seen, and because I have the attention span of like an eight or nine year old, I won't just be standing there and talking the whole time. We're going to bring a little chaos to Asbury Park.
Anthony Longhitano: What inspired you to talk about this particular topic at this point and time?
Bob Pflugfelder: Well, there's an interesting aspect to chaos, and that is that what I find is I can do a demonstration for a room full of 1,000 people and at that moment where I'm about to pour one chemical into another chemical and no one knows exactly what's going to happen, you can hear a pin drop in that room. I’ve got everyone's attention, and for a teacher, that is like gold. And if I can use that moment while I have everyone's attention to try to teach and inspire right before the chaos, then for me, that's what it's all about. So hopefully we'll bring a little bit of chaos and a little bit of inspiration as well.
Anthony Longhitano: Bob, if audience members want to get more engaged with either yourself or your idea, how might they do that?
Bob Pflugfelder: Well, there are all sorts of wonderful social media connections. First of all, there is sciencebob.com, and if you want to try out some experiments, I don’t just want you watching me do experiments, I want you to try things out. So I've got a whole bunch of them on the website. I’m also on Instagram and YouTube as ScienceBob, so audience members can follow along on those. We have videos of crazy things that I'm doing in progress. So check those out--and join us in Asbury Park, of course!
Anthony Longhitano: Bob, thank you very much for being with us today. I personally am looking forward to your talk at our event in May.
Anthony Longhitano: You've been listening to Expert Open Radio. As a reminder, get your tickets for the largest, highest rated TEDx conference on the East Coast at www.tedxasburypark.com. This year's event will be held on Saturday, May 18th at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where you'll have an opportunity to hear much more from Bob as he talks about “Inspiring Science Through Moments of Chaos.”
Read more about Bob Pflugfelder here.