Karl Smith has a doctorate in biophysics from the University of Rochester. He also worked at Amazon as a software engineer trying to make the Alexa voice assistant smarter. But now Smith is putting his talents to better use, he says, as a children’s science storyteller. He describes his new calling as “Mister Rogers meets Bill Nye.”
Smith calls his alter ego Doctor Sparks. “Hoo boy,” he says, “there’s a story behind that. It’s not a short story though. Let me just say that I earned the name Sparks, and I earned it on a lonesome walk through the New Mexican high desert that lasted for three sleepless days.”
Smith, a 2011 Allegheny graduate, lives in the Pittsburgh area and does most of his 50-minute shows at elementary and middle schools. But he also has appeared at events such as the World Scout Jamboree 2019 and at institutions like the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh and the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
Smith also delivered a TEDx talk when he was making national news as a graduate student in Rochester writing short stories about people’s lives for 10 cents each on a vintage typewriter.
After finishing his doctorate, he spent some time developing a murder mystery smartphone app and putting together a proposed television pilot, in which he started his Doctor Sparks persona. “The basic idea was to use my typewriter-stories project as a way to teach science concepts,” Smith says.
That’s when he got the Amazon job offer. “I moved to the West Coast, became a professional software developer, took up surfing, and in my free time began to put together the live science storytelling show I now tour with,” says Smith.
A little more than a year later, he moved back to Pittsburgh with his fiancee to become a professional storyteller.
“While I was at Allegheny, I spent my summers working as a historical interpreter at a Boy Scout ranch in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of New Mexico,” Smith says. “Every night in front of a campfire, I would tell stories about what it was like to be a logger in the year 1914, and it’s there that storytelling took hold of me.”
So now Smith travels extensively, spreading scientific knowledge to youngsters as Doctor Sparks. Most of the presentations are in the Pittsburgh area; he toured Rochester and upstate New York schools in November, and in February 2020 he will tour Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Charlotte, North Carolina. He brings a number of props, including “smart” hula hoops, pogo sticks, juggling balls, teddy bears and inflating robotic muffin hats.
The science concepts he teaches include thermodynamics — particularly what heat actually is and how a hot air balloon works, motion and energy, illumination, and fractions, among other things. “Generally I pick a particular next generation science standard or common core curriculum idea, and find a way to spin a story around the concept,” he says. You can find out more about the show here.
Allegheny Professor of English Benjamin Slote recalls Smith sitting in class a decade ago “with a little smile on his face—teachers can tell pretty quickly who is lit from within by their interests and delights in the material. Karl was so lit. His love of stories and storytelling quickly surfaced, as did the related power of imagining the lives of others.”
Slote was Smith’s advisor when Smith worked summers in the New Mexico camp as a storyteller. “He sent me long and wonderfully written reflections about the experience,” Slote recalls. “That’s when his love and performative energies for storytelling were confirmed for me. And that lit-from-within interest in the world and all the world’s quirks has never left him, and I suspect never will. Kids know it when they see it. Which is why storytelling and good teaching are very close cousins.”
It’s not surprising that Smith has focused his storytelling on science, says Allegheny Professor of Physics Doros Petasis.
“Karl’s physics/English double major gave him a breadth of knowledge and experience that he now uses to communicate science to children and inspire them to become future scientists. As a double major, he only did a one-semester senior project in my lab but accomplished more than most students do in a whole year,” Petasis says. “As part of his project, he designed, constructed and tested water-cooled Helmholtz modulation coils for a unique electron spin resonance spectrometer based in a research collaborator’s lab at Carnegie Mellon University. These Helmholtz coils allow us to increase the strength of weak signals we get from metalloprotein samples and are still in use today, many years after Karl constructed them.”
So Smith is on a mission to become the next nationally famous “science guy.”
“The best part about storytelling is when everything sings,” says Smith. “The crowd is with you, you’ve won them over. They can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next. If you do your job right, you can give them a sense that stories are capable of doing more and being more than they would ever have imagined. Anyone can make a crowd laugh, or make them feel fear or anger. But with the right story told the right way, you can make them feel wonder, and that is a special thing.”
Smith says he has had his embarrassing moments on stage, such as dropping and breaking his WiFi-enabled and sensor-studded juggling balls on occasion.
His best moment so far involved a new story he had never told before an audience and it included the audience chanting “Dinosaur, Dinosaur” over and over, says Smith. “I started the story, and the crowd was so into it that they almost threw me off. They chanted so loud they filled the whole gymnasium with sound and it was perfect. Then at the end when the dinosaur eats all the children in the story the audience all shrieked and screamed, and I knew at that moment that I had made the right decision to leave a lucrative and successful career at Amazon to go and tell stories to children.”