The world of science could use a few good superheroes. François Derasse, science professor at Carroll Community College, may not refer to himself as such, but he certainly has the alter ego covered already.
Professor Wizard, Derasse’s brainchild, was launched five years ago with one goal in mind – to make the world of science not only accessible, but interesting for young people in the community.
“I saw that a lot of our students coming in [to the college] disliked science,” Derasse recalls. “I thought that we should get kids interested in science – primarily in elementary and middle schools.”
Out of this revelation, an idea was sparked – the concept of taking ‘old-school’ laboratory experiments and presenting them in new, eye-catching demonstrations that would not only entertain, but teach young kids. Along with Carroll’s science lab manager Sandy Shaw, Professor Wizard began traveling the area, frequenting various schools as well as the local YMCA. The program took off.
Each show is tailored to its venue, taking into consideration various factors – such the size of the room, the height of the ceilings, the placement of the audience in relation to the main stage and whether or not the lights can be dimmed – all things that can play a major role in the kind of demonstrations that are performed.
“We go to schools and we wow kids,” the professor sums up.
Ultimately, that’s what is important in the demonstrations. To Derasse, it’s one thing to teach science; it’s another to engage the audience in the process. Sometimes, this can extend beyond just students.
“When we go to schools, we have teachers there – and sometimes, I think they get more amazed by some of the stuff than the kids do,” Derasse tells with a smile. “My definition of a ‘kid,’ in terms of the show, is ages 3 to 99.”
With 30 years of science instruction under his belt, there’s no shortage of material with which to work. Previous demonstrations include using various metal salts to create flames in an array of different colors, transforming an ordinary bottle into a fast flying rocket through the use of combustion, and capturing a cloud within a jar. The professor explains the science behind each display afterwards, but during the brief moment of execution, the looks on the young faces in the audience attest that the action on stage is just downright cool.
While it’s obvious that the professor has a passion for the scientific, when asked why he keeps on with the productions, he gives a different answer.
“Just the kids,” he says. “To see them excited about science – that’s the driving force.”
It may seem cliché – but there’s a convincing sincerity that comes with his jolly laugh.
Professor Derasse works in cooperation with the Foundation, the school’s non-profit corporation dedicated to the development of financial resources. Instead of receiving direct payments for the demonstrations he puts on, he asks instead for donations to the ‘Professor Wizard Fund,’ and thanks to this system, the show is now entirely self-sustained.
Sure, Derasse finds each demonstration a blast to perform, and there’s a degree of personal fulfillment that comes with the job – the teacher claims that he often ‘feels like a celebrity’ when doing appearances, and that one of the greatest joys comes from children informing him after shows that when they want to grow up, they want to do what he does. But the professor recognizes that Professor Wizard is something much bigger than himself, and that the underlying purpose, however disguised with clever tricks, is to inspire.
“Professor Wizard is not necessarily just a person. It’s a concept.” He points out that the college holds the trademark to the catchy title of the program. “This way, when I’m gone, somebody else can take over.”
Like all good superheroes, the legacy of Professor Derasse – or rather, Professor Wizard – will live on.