Florida State University professor Harold Kroto has a Nobel Prize in chemistry and, after an academic career spanning more than four decades, a reputation as one of the world's most accomplished scientists.
But give Kroto an orange and a videocamera, and he is truly in his element: creating a video lesson about mapmaking and famed cartographer Gerardus Mercator for elementary school students around the globe.
"You can take an orange, okay, and what you can do is mark it out like this," Kroto says, marking it into four equal parts with a pen. "And cut it along those lines with a knife. Cut one side open, all right? Open it up. Take the fruit out and eat it. Now flatten out the peel. Now, that's what Mercator did. He drew the map of the world on something like an orange and he flattened it out like this. . . . I call this an orange peel map of the world."
The three-minute video is one of hundreds that Kroto is collecting in a free digital database (geoset.fsu.edu/home.html) that represents a sort of YouTube meets Google meets Wikipedia for science, math and technology instruction. Think of it as "Mr. Wizard Meets the Internet," free and downloadable for students and teachers across all continents. The project is called GEOSET, short for Global Educational Outreach for Science Engineering and Technology.
Kroto's goal is to harness the Internet and modern technology to revolutionize the way schoolchildren learn science, math and technology. Already, FSU is working with researchers and professors from Scripps Florida, the University of Sheffield in England, the University of Western Australia and the University of Otago in New Zealand. Kroto also is working on partnerships with universities in Japan, Malaysia and India.
"In every village where there is a TV, we can get the Internet to the teacher," said Kroto, 70. "We can get this information out all over the world."
Along the way, Kroto is creating a digital library that captures the work of budding young scientists like FSU undergraduate Jennifer Goldsby, an honors student who filmed a presentation of her research on the effects of inbreeding on domestic animals.
"You never know what students like Jennifer will go on to do," Kroto said. "People would give their right arm for a video of Einstein, right? Well, we are capturing the future Einsteins."
Making it real
Steve Acquah, 29, got hooked on science because of MacGyver.
The popular U.S. television series had the title character, a secret agent, repeatedly escaping from dangerous situations using little more than household products. Acquah, then a young boy growing up in his native England, wondered how MacGyver did it.
"I saw an episode where I think he sealed up a hole with a chocolate bar or something," recalled Acquah, who is earning his doctorate in chemistry at FSU. "You think, that's impossible. But then you study it and you realize, well, you can create this gummy substance, right?"
Today Acquah works with Kroto on the GEOSET project, filming movielike short segments called Secret Science in which he, too, plays a sort of secret agent - deciphering messages in invisible ink and explaining the chemistry behind it.
"Seeing things just on a blackboard, it's really difficult to visualize," Acquah said. "Having it on a screen is helpful, if only to say, 'Tilt the bottle this way to get the right reaction,' is very helpful."
Kathryn Bylsma teaches seventh-grade science at Dr. John Long Middle School in Wesley Chapel. Last year she was named teacher of the year for Pasco County. When she learned about the GEOSET project recently, she used words like "cool," "awesome" and "amen."
"The rap that science has gotten over time is that it's dry, dull and boring. That's the hurdle we face," Bylsma said. "This might be the answer."
'Let me show you this'
Kroto is a compact man with white hair and a ready smile that hints at a streak of mischief.
Born in England 70 years ago, he taught at Sussex University for 37 years before joining the FSU faculty full time in 2005. Kroto is intensely curious by nature, and always eager to share some exciting new find or piece of information.
"Here, let me show you this," is a constant refrain.
Kroto loves art and graphic design as much as chemistry, and the balance between creativity and lab geek make him the sort of engaging professor that college students remember years after they graduate.
Recently, Kroto got an e-mail from former student Jeff Whalen, who used a video he created for GEOSET about hydrogen power to get a job.
Kroto says the momentum for GEOSET really picked up about 18 months ago, when it dawned on him that students like Whalen can be just as effective in front of the camera as professors.
"Students are passionate, energetic and they know their topics," Kroto said. "And they're all doing these presentations anyway, so we're just capitalizing on what they've done."
Today Kroto uses a tiny room off one of the FSU chemistry labs as a studio. It's just a plain brown backdrop, a camera and some basic recording and mixing equipment. But it works, thanks to his creativity and that of his students.
Professor Kroto's e-mail in-box is regularly stuffed with suggestions from all over the world for what to include in the site. He also has visited schools to talk to teachers about the sort of presentations they want to see.
He is awaiting word, due next month, on whether he has secured a nearly $600,000 National Science Foundation Grant that will allow FSU to expand GEOSET into more universities and nations.
"I want to see all the top universities contributing," Kroto said.
"For teachers who spend their lives in teaching, this offers a sort of immortality. Because usually when they leave they take their expertise with them. With this, we can capture on video the innovative or clever way they taught something."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.
On the web
Like 'Mr. Wizard Meets the Internet'
To see what happens, go to Professor Kroto's Web site at geoset.fsu.edu/home.html.