David Letterman’s Last ‘Kid Scientists’ Segment?

By Mark Walsh — February 21, 2015 2 min read
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David Letterman on Friday welcomed middle school science students to do experiments on his late-night talk show for the umpteenth—and likely final—time on Friday.

“This will probably be our last visit with the kid scientists,” said Letterman, who is retiring and will air his final shows in May.

“The Late Show” on CBS has welcomed students affiliated with Naperville, Ill., teacher Lee Marek some 24 times over 18 years, the Chicago Tribune reported. Marek retired 10 years ago from Naperville North High School in Naperville Community Unit School District No. 203 in suburban Chicago. But he remains involved in choosing experiments for the show, as well as the students, most of whom have come from the school district’s five junior high schools.

“Before we begin, I want to thank Lee Marek, who’s been in charge of the kid scientists program for us for a long time,” Letterman said. “He’s a genius.”

Marek was just off-camera, with safety goggles on to help pump hydrogen through a hose for one of the kid experiments. The segments traditionally feature Letterman bantering with the students about science, as well as drawing laughs over his own ignorance about the topics and the possible dangers of the demonstration. (Like Friday, many of the experiements involve flames or reactive combinations of compounds and elements.)

Here are Friday’s experiments, which the “Late Show” Website broke up into three chunks:

The first is 8th-grader Aidan Liljehorn’s hydrogen bubbles experiment:

The second is 8th-grader Maddie Whirledge’s pH color change demonstration:

And the third is 6th-grader Kate Burritt’s flaming gunpowder experiment:

The “Kid Scientists” segments remind me of an Education Week story I did in 1994 about what was then a new wave of TV science shows, including “Beakman’s World” and the first iteration of “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

What I remember most is that I interviewed Bill Nye and various producers of other shows about their offerings, and all unfailingly paid tribute to Don Herbert, the original Mr. Wizard, who was on TV from the 1950’s into the 1990’s in various forms with his science shows such as “Mr. Wizard’s World.”

Then I called up Herbert, to ask what he thought of the new crop of shows, which were all influenced by the fast pace of MTV and presumed shorter attention spans of the youth of the day.

Herbert was by then in his 70s, and his own shows typically featured him as the patronly teacher conducting the experiments for the students (rather than involving them more, as a few critics pointed out). He was not taken with the newer shows.

“It’s not how I would do it,” he told me. Herbert died in 2007.

Who will be the next force for science education on TV?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.