The Hero I Needed Twenty Years Ago: Kate the Chemist

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Between the ages of five and fourteen, I wanted to be a Marine Biologist. Of course, in those early years, I wanted to be a deep sea diver; I only learned of the real job later on. I was going to focus on science at school and then college, and had plans to work in Northern Scotland studying the marine life of the North Sea. I went to my Chemistry teacher for advice on which track to take; she was my teacher and she was the only woman in a department of men. I was told in no uncertain terms that my chosen career was heavy in Chemistry, that I couldn’t cut it, and that I should pursue something else. I dropped science, studied humanities until I was 23, and have never once forgotten that day, or that teacher. Dreams crushed. She offered no support, no extra tutoring, no suggestions on what I might do. Just a blanket no, from a woman in science to a fourteen-year-old girl asking for help.

Thank goodness things have changed. This month Penguin Young Readers launched a new program centered on chemistry, with Dr. Kate Biberdorf at the center. More widely known as Kate the Chemist, Dr. Biberdorf takes a theatrical and hands-on approach to teaching, breaking down the stereotypes of scientists, and reaching out to students who might be intimidated by science. Be still my beating heart. Her dynamic approach to science has been featured on The Today Show, the Wendy Williams Show, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, and now your living room.

Kate The Chemist: The Big Book of Experiments is the first non-fiction offering from the program. It features 25 kid-friendly experiments that can be done in the kitchen. It includes popular favorites such as slime and volcanoes, but also introduces some different experiments like fake tattoos and hot ice. The experiments are all designed and presented in a way, not just to make science fun, but to make it accessible for all ages and interest levels. This is a great book to follow if you are currently homeschooling across multiple grade levels. It is put together with step-by-step instructions, full pictures, a note from Kate, and, praise be, it lets you know ahead of time what the messiness scale of each experiment is.

To accompany this deep dive into the world of home-based science comes a new fictional series in which a ten-year-old Kate is called upon to use her science skills to save the day. The first of these books is called Kate the Chemist: Dragons vs. Unicorns, and this story appeals to all three of my kids on so many levels. In this first adventure, Kate is chosen to be the assistant director of her school’s musical “Dragons vs. Unicorns” while her best friend Birdie is cast as the lead Unicorn. Honestly, this had me hooked at the liquid nitrogen Cheetos Kate uses to make the Dragons look like they are breathing fire. When it seems that someone is trying to sabotage Kate and the the show, Kate steps in with her sleuthing skills, and her scientific knowledge of course, to get to the bottom of the problem and save the musical.

Wait a minute. Instead of just thinking, I needed to gather evidence. Make observations.

I think my favorite thing, apart from the kick ass main character, amazing cast of friends, and really amazing illustrations, is that each chapter begins with a scientific and colloquial definition. Protocol, Entropy, Liquid (noun): these concepts are all explained in brief before featuring in the chapter in some way. It’s a great introduction to the basics of Chemistry that is readily accessible to a variety of ages. It even taught me something, but then again, I did abandon Chemistry at fourteen.

Protocol (noun). A set of instructions so you can re-create an experiment or procedure. You can make up ridiculous songs, but you never want to make up ridiculous protocols in science.

My ten-year-old son loved this story, and honestly so did I. It is well written, has a good group of kids at the center, and has a compelling story. The way the everyday chemistry is blended in is done seamlessly, and has both of us noticing how we are all doing a little bit of science everyday.

The next book in the series comes out this fall, and next summer we are looking forward to the second in the non-fiction series Kate the Chemist’s Big Book of Kitchen Chemistry, which this time includes 25 edible experiments. My kids are huge fans of armpit fudge, so I foresee this being a big hit!

You can visit Kate on Instagram and Facebook @katethechemist, on Twitter @K8theChemist, and online at GeekMom received a copy of Kate the Chemist: Dragons vs. Unicorns and a sample chapter of Kate The Chemist: The Big Book of Experiments for review purposes. You can’t help but have a crush on someone whose personal tagline is “breaking stereotypes and blowing stuff up.”

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