Kate Biberdorf demonstrates a “firework balloon” at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is a lecturer. (Photo by Christian Benavides/College of Natural Sciences at University of Texas at Austin)

Can you imagine a teacher who breathes fire and makes explosions that blast the eyes out of jack-o’-lanterns? Or what about one who, with a quick pour of potassium iodide into a mix of hydrogen peroxide, dish soap and food coloring, makes bubbly foam that shoots toward the ceiling? Kate Biberdorf is no imaginary teacher. She’s real, and she’s coming to Washington next month, bringing along her blowtorch and cornstarch, her supplies of liquid nitrogen and dry ice, and a lot of enthusiasm for chemistry.

A lecturer at the University of Texas, Biberdorf (her students call her “Dr. B”) describes herself as a kid at heart.

“I love explosions, mixing things up together and seeing what will happen,” she told Kids­Post from her office in Austin, Texas. “I’m always messy, always dirty. And I love my job.”

That job involves teaching thousands of university students chemistry every year. Biberdorf also teaches younger students across the country. Her goal? To show kids that chemistry is exciting and that anyone can become a chemist. She also hopes to one day host an explosive science show in Las Vegas.

When Biberdorf was 15, an energetic and fun high school chemistry teacher inspired her interest in the subject. Biberdorf’s mom encouraged her to follow her curiosity.

“She had one bathroom set up for me,” Biberdorf says, “and anything in there was okay to experiment with, like shampoos, soaps and food coloring.”

Why does she love chemistry so much? Because she says it “explains everything in life,” including computers and flowers, how clocks work, why cement turns from liquid to solid, what happens when you breathe, your emotions and even why you sweat.


The USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo in Washington will feature 3,000 hands-on exhibits and two shows by Biberdorf. (Photo by Michael J. Colella)

Speaking of sweating, Biberdorf also loves to teach her students about the science of healthy living and encourage them to exercise (she especially loves kickboxing), eat lots of greens and drink more water. If she weren’t a chemist, she says, she’d be a fitness instructor. But with Biberdorf, every topic relates back to science. Exercise thrills her because it’s all about kinetics, which has to do with the energy an object has when it’s in motion.

For kids who are interested in having fun with science and perhaps becoming a scientist one day, she recommends studying hard in school, especially in math and science. And to practice thinking like a scientist.

“The best thing to do is to ask why,” she says. “Why does water come out of your sink when you turn a knob? Why does a solution of water turn blue when you add food coloring? Why does a leaf look the way it does? What makes bricks stick together? If you’re always asking questions, you’re a scientist already.”

Find out more about Biberdorf at katethechemist.com.

IF YOU GO

What: USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo

Explore 3,000 hands-on science-related exhibits spread out in a 16-acre exhibit hall. On Saturday, Biberdorf will demonstrate cryogenics (freezing stuff with liquid nitrogen). She’ll devote Sunday’s show to fire. Biberdorf also recommends checking out Steve Spangler and Jason Latimer, who combine science and magic.

Where: Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Place, Northwest Washington.

When: April 7 to 8. Saturday is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

How much: Free, but preregistration is required.

For more information: Have a parent visit usasciencefestival.org.