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Virtual Experiment

Vicky Cobb Vicki Cobb has pondered many questions in her 89 science books for children. When the economic downturn forced many American schools to curtail author visits, a new question emerged: How would she, and other nonfiction authors for children, manage without the additional income from these speaking engagements? Cobb, a former middle school science teacher, is not fazed by challenges. She knows how to make tea bags fly, bars of soap erupt, and how to collect cosmic sand. And so, at a time of life when others might settle into retirement, she’s embarked on a new experiment—launching a Web company.

“I’m so cutting edge for an old lady,” jokes Cobb, a resident of Greenburgh, New York, who, during an hour and a half-long interview, speaks animatedly about a wide range of topics, jumping effortlessly from Galileo to grandchildren, from skiing to sexism.

But she seems most spirited when discussing INK THINK TANK, which she refers to as her baby. With the online venture, Cobb hopes to continue her mission to improve the quality of education across the country, while also helping authors improve their bottom line. “Children’s nonfiction is not a good way to make a living,” she says. In more buoyant economic times, Cobb would supplement her income by visiting as many as 50 schools each year.

INK THINK TANK, which includes a cadre of about two dozen nonfiction authors of children’s books, is designed to function as a resource for teachers. It includes two main features: 1) A free database of books which are aligned with national standards and are deemed high-quality by Cobb; 2) A program of virtual author visits, which link teachers with a writer. The program also enables students to interact with the authors for a fraction of the cost of a live meeting. But can children really relate to a figure talking on a screen? No problem, according to Cobb. She recently spoke to a school in Louisiana, she says, where her image was projected onto a tremendous screen on the wall. When she was finished, the children felt they knew her so well, they “wanted to take a picture with me on the screen.”

In her prolific career as a science writer, Cobb’s central goal has been to pique children’s curiosity. She believes that “the school culture is such that as the kids get older they ask questions because they want answers for the test. I want kids to dance a little with the mystery.” To persuade children to do that dance, Cobb engages in a style that is both entertaining and educational in her books and public speaking. In her most recent book, What’s The Big Idea? Amazing Science Questions for the Curious Kid, published in June, Cobb escorts readers through much of elementary school science, from physics to chemistry to biology, posing and answering questions. The language is simple and playful, geared to children, but can be informative to adults who haven’t grappled with such topics in years. For example, the chapter, “Why Doesn’t The Sun Burn?” begins with this sentence, “The secret of the sun’s constant energy is that it is not fire.” The titles of Cobb’s vast library of works suggest her light-hearted style: Science Experiments You Can Eat, her first big hit, was published in 1972. Among her many works, she’s written Lots of Rot, The Scoop on Ice Cream, and I Face The Wind.

Cobb understands persistence, having reached adulthood at a time when women were often not welcomed in fields like science and math. Growing up she was told: “Girls don’t do science.” It wasn’t until she transferred to Barnard College from the University of Wisconsin in her junior year, that she could pursue her interest without questions. She did encounter sexism in the almost entirely male classes she took at Columbia, but “the big ideas of science dazzled me,” she recalls. More than five decades later, Cobb retains that initial amazement, and it is this sense of wonder that she hopes to instill in students today, through her books—and her presentations, both real and virtual.

On her personal Web site, vickicobb. com, viewers meet an animated caricature of Cobb, winking and smiling, hinting at the adventures ahead if you dare to delve into the world of science.

-by Elicia Brown '90