I am a Hudson Valley Parent: Brian Crandall

Science with a mad twist

Mad Scientist Brian Crandall conducts an experiment with his daughter Katie.

Growing up in Peekskill, Brian Crandall was fascinated by the world around him and driven to figure out how things worked. There was just one problem.

“I was a science geek before there were outlets for science geeks,” he says. “My school never had a science fair. There weren’t recreational opportunities for science. You either did sports after school or you did nothing.”

Google and Wikipedia, saviors of every parent who’s been asked why the sky is blue or the stars twinkle, weren’t around yet either. So Crandall just poked around on his own, experimenting in his room.

“Some of the things I was curious about really weren’t that safe,” he recalls now with a laugh. “I’m lucky nothing ever went wrong!”

[Read more: Hudson Valley’s best places to teach your little ones about the sciences]

[Read more: Math and Science Skills -- Crucial for Today's Jobs]

[Read more: Experience science at home]

Today, as a father living in Goshen, Crandall runs the Mid-Hudson branch of the science educational company Mad Science in order to provide the two things he lacked as a child: opportunities for science enrichment that are both educational and fun, and supervision to ensure that nobody’s garage gets blown up in the process.

“Kids are going to be curious about this stuff anyway,” he says. “Let them ask questions and experiment in a controlled environment rather than one in which if you make a mistake, someone gets hurt.”

Crandall and his staff of fellow mad scientists travel throughout the Mid-Hudson Valley; bringing science camps and workshops to classrooms, summer camps, after school programs and birthday parties. Programs begin as early as preschool, since Crandall believes that preschoolers are natural born scientists.

“Your average 3- or 4-year-old is already doing the scientific method,” he says. “They ask a question, they do an experiment, and they figure out what the answer is by what information they get back.”

Trying to flush a grapefruit down the toilet may not seem like splitting the atom, but it’s still an example of trying to figure out how things work through trial and error. Crandall says that one of the best ways to encourage this behavior so that kids don’t “grow out of it” is to not be so quick to answer their endless questions.

“I can be guilty of that too,” he admits, “because I’m so excited to share information. When my daughter would ask questions when she was little, we’d try to come back with ‘Well, what do YOU think?’ and have her use what she’s observing about the world to answer her own questions, instead of just feeding her information.”

The bulk of Crandall’s programming is directed at students from kindergarten to 6th grade; the exact ages at which kids today aren’t getting enough exposure to science.

It wasn’t always like this. Crandall himself fondly recalls his own 6th grade teacher letting him endlessly wire circuit boards in the back of the classroom. But when Crandall speaks to grade school teachers today, he finds that even though they’d love to be teaching more science to their students, they don’t have much of a choice.

“When I go in and talk to the teachers, they tell me, ‘We used to do science and social studies every week, but now we can do science OR social studies. We have to spend so much time on English language arts and math, because that’s what the standardized testing is based on,’” Crandall recounts. “Children pick up on the fact that adults teach them the things they think are important. Right now, science isn’t it.”

That means that it’s up to Crandall and parents to make sure that Hudson Valley kids don’t lose that innate curiosity and questioning, the mark of all good scientific work. His daughter Katie, now in middle school, certainly hasn’t lost it.

“She did her first science fair project last year,” Crandall says proudly.  “She was interested in the germs in her school, so she went around and swabbed different surfaces and then grew the bacteria in petri dishes to see what was the germiest surface in the school. She was so giddy about it. It was amazing.”

And the conclusion?

“The germiest surface was the water fountain. Which I didn’t think it would be!” he says. “My preconceived notion was that it was going to be one of the door handles. But the answer wasn’t one of the obvious choices.”

That’s the mark of a good scientist: Not making assumptions, and testing everything. Thanks to Crandall and the Mad Science of the Mid-Hudson team, the Hudson Valley is creating more and more good scientists every week. 

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