Profile: Lee Marek
Mix chemistry, humor and the result is 'WEird Science'
By Lisa Stodder
Seeing is believing
In a recent Chemistry 101 class, Lee Marek demonstrated one of his favorite discrepant events (a discrepant event is defined as when something you don’t anticipate happens or an event that contains a surprise element).
He takes a candle out, ignites it, allows it to burn for two minutes, then blows it out. Students write down and discuss their observations. They talk about the wax melting, the carbon dioxide coming off.
Just as the bell is about to ring, Marek eats the candle — not a real candle at all, but one made out of potato and Brazil nuts.
“It’s the phenomenological approach to science. Introduce the topic by showing the phenomenon. It helps to set it in their minds.”
Marek has performed such demonstrations in classrooms and auditoriums around the world and for millions of viewers as a regular guest on the David Letterman show.
He received a national high school chemistry teaching award in 1994 and a Golden Apple Award in 1998.
Blinded by science
Retired after 28 years as a chemistry teacher at Naperville North High School, Marek is in his third year as a visiting lecturer in chemistry at UIC.
He has taught summer workshops for teachers here since the mid-80s. He conducts workshops worldwide for teachers interested in learning about incorporating demonstrations into their lessons.
It all began about 27 years ago with a group called Weird Science, named after the movie and an Oingo-Boingo song.
Stuck in rush-hour traffic on the way to a meeting, Marek and fellow teachers began brainstorming about how to make science more interesting in the classroom.
“At the time chemistry demonstrations were more matter-of-fact. They could take something interesting and make it dull, so we decided to put a spin on it to make it more interesting.”
Marek and his colleagues incorporated humor and sensational science to catch the students’ attention, with videos and songs about the periodic table.
“Let’s face it. It’s the MTV generation,” he says.
They just did their 18th program at Fermilab for 800 parents and kids, and 14 shows at the Museum of Science and Industry for about 1,000 children, “a chemistry demonstration orgy for the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois.”
When Marek played the science songs, which have been marketed commercially, the kids started singing along.
“They say they can’t get it out of their mind. It’s stuck. What more can anybody ask for?” he laughs.
Science and serendipity
After a Newsweek story mentioned Weird Science, Letterman invited them to appear on the show.
By now, Marek has appeared 12 times by himself and 13 times with students.
“Training the kids is nerve-wracking. You don’t want a kid to go up in front of a million people and freak out.”
Marek rehearses with the students, then sends a videotape of 10 kids to the show. Producers select five, ultimately whittled down to three.
Sometimes it’s more fun when things don’t go as planned.
“One kid wrote his script on his hand. He got out there and started reading it off his hand and the audience was dying.
“Another time one kid’s demo didn’t quite work, so he moved it to look like it did. Letterman loved it.”
Marek has blasted carbon dioxide at Letterman, formed polymers that turned into a slimy green substance and created other startling effects.
Letterman once told him, “My life is in your hands.”
On his way to a Letterman show in the early ’90s, Marek was traveling with a torch gun for the demonstration. He thought there was no propane, but when security agents pulled the trigger there was a whoosh and a flame.
This was a discrepant event even Marek could not have anticipated.
“They actually let me on the plane.”
As a kid growing up in Chicago and Mt. Prospect, Marek performed his first experiments on a home chemistry set.
His father was a mechanical engineer, his mother an elementary school teacher.
He first wanted to study history but switched to chemistry because he hated writing long papers and didn’t want to suffer.
Marek earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from UIUC and master’s degrees in chemistry and physics from Roosevelt University.
After graduation he worked one year as a chemical engineer before deciding he preferred teaching.
“It keeps you alive; it keeps you fresh.”
Many of his students have gone on to teach and practice science.
Marek received an e-mail the other day from a former student, asking about a demo he had seen in 1975.
“He said, ‘I still don’t get it. I’ve been thinking about this since 1975 and I have this question,’” Marek laughs.
Getting their attention
This summer he’ll conduct workshops and tours on the history of science — no demonstrations — in Austria and Germany.
Marek and his wife Margaret, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Adler Planetarium, live in Naperville, “the least stressed-out midsize city in the country.”
To relax he enjoys cross-country skiing in the forest preserves and reading books on travel and science fiction. He’ll do PowerPoint presentations to unwind, a practice he admits is “really sick,” and keeps up with the latest articles in scientific journals.
One of his favorite articles, published in the Journal of Chemical Education, was called “The Importance of Being Eccentric.”
He recalled a lecturer in physics he saw during a visit to Glasgow University.
“He was really old — even older than me. He came out with a cane. I thought it was going to be deadly dull.
“He put the cane around his neck and it swung as he lectured.
“I listened to the whole talk.
“People pay attention to eccentrics. They listen to them.”
Among Marek’s own personal eccentricities is his T-shirt collection. He owns 180 different science T-shirts, collected at various scientific meetings, and wears a different one each day to class.
Some of the shirts bear complicated messages, prompting students to ask what they mean and serving as an introduction to the day’s lesson. Sometimes the message is plain and simple.
Today his shirt reads, “Another Dude for Science.”
It's weird... but it's science (08/28/02)