Naperville students wearing brightly-colored safety glasses have made a name for themselves on late-night television.
This week’s appearance on the “Late Show With David Letterman” marks the 23rd time students from Naperville School District 203 participated in a segment called “Kid Scientists.”
The question is whether Tuesday’s appearance will be the last for Naperville students now that Letterman has announced his intentions to retire in 2015.
Naperville Central science teacher Jaci Gentile, who chaperones students on the trip, is confident Naperville will be in the limelight again. Gentile said the show’s producers already were talking about having students come out to New York City for another taping, though when that is remains up in the air, as no date has been given for Letterman’s final show.
Letterman’s “Kid Scientists” segment featuring Naperville students has been a staple of the show since October 1997 when the first group of students led the talk show host through a series of science experiments. Over the years, the kids managed to get Letterman to ignite bubbles, hydrogen balloons and other assorted exploding materials, much to the delight of the audience.
An important role
The involvement of Naperville students on late-night television grew from the science demonstrations on the “Late Show” put on by then Naperville North science teacher Lee Marek in the early 1990s. After years of wowing the crowd, Marek, who now teaches chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he was asked by show producers if he could round up a few students to perform experiments.
Marek joked that in the olden days he’d scour books and collaborate with other educators to get ideas for experiments. Now, he searches the Internet.
Even after retiring from Naperville North a decade ago, Marek to this day remains an integral part of setting up the experiments for students and preparing them to be on the show.
Marek said the kids’ job is to explain, demonstrate and answer questions; any jokes come from Letterman.
“The big thing we tell them, ‘Don’t be funny,’” he said.
Marek understands his role as the straight man in the science-filled comedy shtick.
His segment from 1991 involving Marek removing disappearing ink from Letterman’s shirt by spraying the host with a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher helped the “Late Show” earn an Emmy nomination. Marek said the bit even was spotlighted during the Emmy presentation ceremony.
In the segment, a seemingly disgruntled Letterman repeatedly gets even with Marek by spraying the unfazed Marek with the fire extinguisher.
The science plus comedy formula has paid off and even was the catalyst for a famous science-related meme a decade ago.
Mentos and Diet Coke
The Mentos and Diet Coke craze of the early 2000s featured folks in lab coats who would drop the mint candy into multiple 2-liter bottles of soda to create erupting cascades of diet soda that looked like the dancing fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Thank Naperville students and Lee Marek for that one.
The duo of Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe, cofounders of EepyBird Studios which turned the basic science experiment into an art form and viral video sensation, credit Marek and “Marek’s Kid Scientists” for their inspiration when the kids made Diet Coke geysers using Mentos on the “Late Show with David Letterman” in 1999.
Planning for the roughly 10 minutes of experiments takes months of preparation, according to Gentile, who takes care of the organizational side of Kid Scientists.
“No one realizes how much goes into setting this up,” she said.
Show producers give Gentile and Marek a call six months in advance. That’s when Gentile asks for a list of names from the local junior high schools. On occasion, like this year, high school students are invited to audition as well.
Picking the talent
The 15 to 25 students are given scripts and asked to demonstrate an experiment Marek set up.
“We are looking for kids who are a quick study, who can learn the script and material and recite it back easily,” she said.
Videos of the students then are sent to show producers who select five students and five experiments they want to see on the show.
This year producers picked Samantha Xu, a sophomore at Naperville Central; Jakob Myers, a freshman at Naperville North; Emma Bednar, a sixth-grader at Kennedy Junior High; Jay Bhatia, an eighth-grader at Jefferson Junior High; and Maddy Whirledge, a seventh-grader at Kennedy Junior High.
It’s not until the day of the show that producers decide which three of the five students will appear on the show. This week it was Samantha, Jakob and Emma.Tags: David Letterman, Naperville School District 203