Lifestyle

‘Science Bob’ has fans on TV and at Fessenden School

The classroom is a wonderland for young boys. There are model sharks, skeletons, and a live tarantula. There’s a “destruction table” cluttered with electronic gadgets in various states of disrepair. At the flick of a switch, the room is bathed in a cool blue light which gives it the feel of the interior of the starship Enterprise — or at least so the teacher says.

“Science Bob, are these real eyeballs?” one third-grader calls out, holding up a jar. The query gets lost in the commotion as teams of students in polo shirts and cotton shorts scurry around the room, laughing and chattering as they work together to build marble tracks with wood blocks and duct tape.

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It’s the last day of the school year at The Fessenden School in Newton, and teacher Bob Pflugfelder has given his students a task: Build a Rube Goldberg-style contraption that will capture a small toy frog in a plastic cup.

“Science Bob,” as everyone calls him, wants the children to learn by doing. His joy is so genuine that it’s turning this elementary-school teacher and onetime tutor to the stars into something of a celebrity, with recurring gigs on such TV shows as “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Live With Kelly and Michael,” making slime and exploding pumpkins to illustrate scientific principles.

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Pflugfelder, 46, has also recently launched a series of mystery books for young readers featuring Nick and Tesla, two 11-year-old engineers whose inventions are detailed in the books. And he is often asked to give presentations at science fairs and the do-it-yourself conferences known as Maker Faires. No long, droning lectures or PowerPoint slide shows for Science Bob.

“I have the same attention span as an 8-year-old,” he says between classes. “Something will blow up or fly through the air. That’s a given.”

Long before he became Science Bob, he was just Bob Pflugfelder from Westchester County, New York. His father worked on Wall Street, his mother stayed at home. Nine years younger than his only sibling, a sister, the precocious kid was given a lot of leeway.

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“My parents were very tolerant about my adventures,” he says, sitting in a worn armchair in a teachers’ lounge after lunch in the Fessenden cafeteria. “I turned the bathroom into a darkroom. I wanted a frog pond in the backyard, and they let me dig a giant hole.” For Halloween, he invited the neighbor kids into an elaborate haunted house setup in the basement, with homemade animatronic goblins and “sketchy smoke machines.”

In summers, he attended Camp Becket in Western Massachusetts. He loved it so much he later became a staff member there, and he now owns a log cabin-style summer home in the Berkshires.

“It was basically forests, swamps, and fields, and they said ‘Go,’ ” he recalls. “I was the kid looking for crayfish under rocks and trying to catch chipmunks with homemade traps. It definitely kindled the explorer spirit in me.”

Yet Bob wasn’t always all about science. At Emerson College, he studied television production: “I was an AV nerd, a theater arts guy,” he says. It took a college class project at a Back Bay elementary school to help him realize that he might be destined to teach.

After graduating from Emerson, he moved to Los Angeles, still aiming for a career in film or TV production. Then he stumbled into an opportunity to put his scientific enthusiasm to use. An acquaintance was coaching a young actor doing a scene involving pond scum, “and I had a microscope,” he said. He took on a pupil, the boy actor Jonathan Lipnicki (“Jerry Maguire,” “Stuart Little”), who was playing a brainy kid on the “The Jeff Foxworthy Show.” Lipnicki had another instructor on the set named Bob, who was training the young actor to box. So to differentiate, the cast and crew began calling that guy “Boxing Bob” and Pflugfelder “Science Bob.”

Over two stints in LA, Science Bob tutored young actors such as Rico Rodriguez of “Modern Family” and Worcester native Erik Per Sullivan of “Malcolm in the Middle.” A little over a decade ago, after deciding it was time to move back East for good, he contacted Fessenden out of the blue to ask about a position. As it happened, one of the science teachers at the pre-K to Grade 9 school was leaving.

With the rise of YouTube, Science Bob began taping and posting some of his go-to experiments — making a gusher of foam with yeast and hydrogen peroxide, for instance. The Web publication Boing Boing picked up one of the videos, which is where Science Bob first came to the attention of Jimmy Kimmel. Bob has since become a regular on the comedian’s late-night show.

‘There’s science in the air — “Cosmos,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mythbusters.” Kids are hungry to learn about science. . . . Somebody’s got to take the role, capture the moment.’

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Bob is “exceptionally creative and very likable,” says Kimmel, a big supporter, in an e-mail. “He really does make learning fun. If I’d had a teacher like him when I was in school, I’d probably be missing at least two fingers by now.”

But Science Bob doesn’t think of himself as a TV personality. Slender, bespectacled, in a blue shirt and tie and sensible black shoes, he isn’t especially taken with himself.

“To me,” he says, “someone is giving me a big budget to do big experiments, and I get to be a kid. I can’t wait to trigger 1,000 film canisters into rockets or blow up 10 pumpkins.”

Today, we’re in a “golden age” of science, he believes: “There’s science in the air — ‘Cosmos,’ ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ ‘Mythbusters.’ Kids are hungry to learn about science.”

Yet there’s been no major, popular TV show exclusively devoted to science for kids since PBS’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy” ended its run in 1998.

“Somebody’s got to take the role, capture the moment,” says Science Bob.

His fellow faculty members say his energy is infectious.

“I’m taken with Bob,” says Rita Edelman, a first-grade teacher at Fessenden. “He walks into the room, and the kids let out these crazy cheers.”

The weekend before classes ended at Fessenden, Bob was in New York for the World Science Fair, where he met Mike Massimino, the astronaut who repaired the Hubble telescope, and hung out with Nye, who has become a friend. He reported those encounters to his students in a professional-quality, audio-visual segment called “Science in the News,” with which he opens each of his classes.

Twelve years into his tenure at Fessenden, Science Bob spends two days a week on the campus. His main goal is to foster an affinity for science while the students are still young, before their natural curiosity begins to flag. Like little wizards, first-graders at Fessenden work through a “potions unit,” which teaches them how to measure, use droppers, and write out procedures, he says.

“It’s all integrated,” says Science Bob. “Like any school, we try to build on their skills.

“I don’t care if they can name the three smallest bones in the ear, but I do care that they know it’s really cool how sound travels.”

Back in the classroom, he’s calling out time limits — “seven minutes!” — to the kids as they scamper to get their marble tracks to work.

“Science Bob, is this complicated enough?” yells one boy whose team has built a multitiered ramp ending with a row of blocks lined up like dominoes.

“Wow, that’s crazy!” he replies. “I love this!”

Nearby, another team is struggling with their design.

“Ours keeps breaking,” groans one kid. A teammate, who has given up, is idly bouncing a tennis ball.

Looking over his shoulder at the working ramp, Amir Jamal, 9, brightens.

“How about we do what they did in four minutes?” he says.

Ten minutes later, the class is over. Having finished with a little speech about how good science requires collaboration and a willingness to fail, Science Bob sends the boys off with a wish that they explore and build things on their own over the summer.

Now he’s left to sort the wood blocks and scrape up clumps of discarded duct tape from the floor. “Science is messy,” he says with a smile.

This summer, he’d like to spend more time in his Somerville workshop, finishing an R2-D2 robot he’s designing. Beyond the simple experiments he’s known for, he is endlessly enthralled by the far more complex products of science such as biotechnology, space travel, and 3-D printing.

Pflugfelder laughs when asked whether he has any ethical concerns about artificial intelligence.

“I’m not worried about the robot uprising,” he says. “We’ll always be in control. We’re always going to have an ‘off switch.’ ”

Science Bob, however, does not appear to have one of his own.

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James Sullivan can be reached at jamesg
sullivan@gmail.com
. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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