Physics professor's high-energy show turns kids on
With music by Madonna blasting in the background, Lynda Williams jumped up and down in her slinky black outfit, ponytail tossing from side to side.
But Williams isn't a Material Girl, like the song's title. No way. She's a High Tech Girl.
"Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me; I think they're passé," she belted out. "If they can't talk about quantum physics, I just walk away!"
Williams, a physics professor at San Francisco State University, is on a mission to make children - especially young girls - excited about science. The message she sends through music and dance is simple: It's not deadly dull.
"I want people to see that science is really cool and groovy," she said. "In so many classrooms, it's presented as, 'These are the laws and here are some facts.' No one asks your opinion. It's not interactive at all."
On Thursday, the 36-year-old former go-go dancer strutted her stuff during two shows at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, including one for 75 local children. Decked out in light purple nail polish and green eye shadow, she covered topics including the Big Bang, the structure of cells and different elements.
At the end, the children - ranging in age from the fourth to the eighth grade - mobbed her for autographs.
"I got one on my hand and on my piece of paper," said Bridget Dowd, a 10-year-old Newport News resident.
"She was really exciting."
That's the reaction that Williams - dubbed the Physics Chanteuse or Physics Spice - wants. She didn't always love science herself. In fact, as a high school student, she failed algebra and geometry and got a D in physics.
A college philosophy class changed her mind. Williams realized that to talk about the big questions, such as where people come from, she needed to know about science.
"I lacked the mental chops," she said.
After graduating from college, Williams worked for six months as a go-go dancer, wearing "outrageous tights and headdresses" in different clubs. In 1993, she went back to school and got a master's in physics at San Francisco State.
Combining her love for entertainment and science has been ideal, Williams said. As she receives more national attention, she's working on creating a children's television show called "Lynda's Lab" and also wants to start a summer science camp for girls.
The reaction from her colleagues has been positive, she said - for the most part.
"Some scientists aren't interested in the popularization of science," she said.
Williams writes some of her material using well-known songs and composes her own music for the rest. Neither is easy when she's trying to rhyme words like "gluon" and "lithium."
The end product doesn't seem to suffer. During one song in the 40-minute show, 9- year-old Tori Hovater ran to the front of the room and danced along with Williams.
"I just felt like it," said Hovater, who lives in York County. "She's pretty cool. I like the way she dances."
Samantha Merz had another thought.
"She'd be a really cool teacher," said Merz, a 10-year-old Williamsburg resident. "Definitely."
— Alison Freehling can be reached at 247-4789 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Suggestions from Lynda Williams on getting your child interested in science:
- Spend time exploring nature. Let your children see changes such as the different phases of the moon and leaves turning colors, and encourage them to ask questions.
- Don't try to be an expert. If you don't know something, look it up with your children. Teach them how to solve problems.
- Don't ignore your children's questions. It's normal for them to ask "Why?" Responding helps increase their curiosity.