As flames erupted from a plastic water jug, Isabella Smith sat entranced. • "Ooh," the 11-year-old said as she watched the fire quickly die out. • But the trio of mad scientists at the Museum of Science and Industry weren't done yet. • Between telling jokes and dancing, the scientists clad in white lab coats and goofy goggles tested the effect of temperature on balloons by dipping them in liquid nitrogen, and turned plastic soda bottles into rockets using heat. • "Is fire a gas?" asked the man known as Dr. Shock. "The best way to find out here at MOSI is to test it." • Both entertainment and educational, the show is part of an effort by MOSI to become a statewide resource for science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM. • And at the center of the initiative: a crew of professionally trained actors and real-life scientists dubbed STEAMpunks. • "The exhibits here are fun and hands-on that you can interact with but they don't interact back," said Jeff Easterling, executive producer of the STEAMpunks. "These guys are living exhibits who can be anywhere and do anything at the drop of a hat. We are taking these science concepts and just putting them in a really cool wrapping."
Dr. Shock, who goes by the name of Tom Hamilton when he's not at MOSI, earned an acting degree in England and puts on a faux English accent when performing.
"My name is Dr. Shock," he tells the audience. "First name Doctor, last name Shock."
A hit with the kids and parents, Hamilton's and his colleagues' performances lean heavily on comedy while still easily explaining scientific concepts.
After the show on a recent afternoon, 11-year-old Smith, who was visiting the museum with her family from Indiana, said she thought the show was cool and had even learned something.
"That fire needs oxygen and fuel to start," she said.
When not performing shows, the STEAMpunks can be found wandering throughout the museum, assisting visitors and doing "random acts of science" as simple as showing a trick on an iPad or explaining more complex ideas like the parts of the brain.
"It's a lot more organic," Easterling said. "Guests don't feel like they have to stick to a schedule or worry about missing something."
The idea of combining sciences, technology, engineering and math is not new. Known as STEM, the concept has been touted as a much-needed focus for students in Florida.
By adding the A, for art, MOSI hopes to make it even stronger.
"The idea of including art into STEM is simple," said Shannon Herbon, communications manager for MOSI. "It's already in there, we just need to recognize it."
In its efforts to become a STEAM zone, MOSI is working with Hillsborough County and state officials to determine what is needed, Herbon said.
The museum is looking into the possibility of opening a STEAM-focused high school as well as updating its IMAX theater to digital and 3-D, Herbon said.
And, of course, the STEAMpunks are leading the way inside the museum.
"Guests have already started coming back and asking if their favorite is working that day," Easterling said.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.