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Q&A: Science Teacher, and Letterman Sidekick, Recounts TV Career

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Lee Marek, a high school chemistry teacher in suburban Chicago, keeps students interested in science by performing amazing feats in daily classroom experiments. But he never expected he would be entertaining late-night television audiences as David Letterman's "Weird Science'' sidekick.

Mr. Marek first appeared on NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman'' two years ago. A scout for the show, who had read about Weird Science--a group of five Chicago-area teachers dedicated to the thrill of classroom experimentation--invited the Naperville High School teacher to make an appearance. He has been on the show periodically since then.

Mr. Marek talked with Staff Writer Joanna Richardson about his experiences.

Q. What was your first appearance on the "Late Night'' show like? Were you nervous?

A. The show flew me out to New York and picked me up in a limousine. You rush around like crazy the day of the show, changing the script, changing what you're going to do. When you tell the staff what you're going to demonstrate, they agree and then change their minds. Then all of a sudden you go on the stage, you rush back to the airport, and you're teaching the next day.

I really wasn't nervous. I have an audience every day in class. And it's not going to make or break my career if I don't do well. If you're a comedian, you have to sweat it. But I'm still employed the next day.

Q. What kind of experiments did you perform on the show?

A. On the first show, I had a big block of dry ice (carbon dioxide) that I put magnesium into, which burns with an incredibly bright flame. The fire from the burning magnesium is so intense that it actually rips the carbon dioxide apart. This produces carbon, which burns with an incredible white light source inside the blocks of dry ice. It's spectacular to see.

I also did something involving a catalytic reaction with hydrogen peroxide and goat's blood. You know when you put peroxide on a cut and it bubbles? I got stuff that's 10 times more concentrated than that. It bubbles up real quick and makes a mess.

Before my last appearance, the staff wouldn't let me rehearse because they knew my experiment was messy. They knew what was going to happen, but they didn't realize there were big fans blowing toward the stage. The foam used in the experiment was supposed to blow out over the audience, but it flew back all over David Letterman and the camera crew. Letterman actually started swallowing the stuff. But I don't think he was really upset.

Q. How have students reacted to your TV appearances? Do you find it easier to keep them involved in class?

A. The students seem to think [the shows are] funny. It's on very late, but I think a lot of students watch it or record it. But I don't get any special treatment at school. If they already know me, I'm just the same old guy.

We already do experiments a lot in class. I don't spend every period goofing around with demonstrations, but if you can do one of those interesting things and use it as a hook to draw kids into the lesson, it's always good to do.

Q. How has your dedication to experimentation--and your appearance on the show--affected your teaching career?

A. I was lucky enough to get a government grant last year, so I teach three periods at school, and then I'm off to pursue other projects. I do some writing for a newsletter for science teachers, and I do work for my alliance--a network of chemistry teachers that meets monthly to share ideas.

I also do a lot of workshops in my free time. I just did a show for teachers at the Pittsburgh Science Museum. And in November, I'm involved in Chemistry Day in Chicago with 15 other teachers. We'll do demonstrations all day for the general public and students.

The groups I'm involved with try to give teachers some ammunition to use in the classroom. There's a general trend in science that people are doing all sorts of things to try to get kids more interested.

Q. After your stint on "Late Night,'' do you have any show business plans for the future?

A. I'm actually doing a series in Chicago. It's a science demonstration show for kids. We just shot our first show this fall, and we'll be shooting three or four more shows this year.

It's running on the ABC affiliate on Saturday in place of cartoons. It's a little bit of science and comedy.

And who knows if I'll go on ["Late Night''] again. There's really no schedule. All of my last five appearances were unexpected.

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