Boulder scientist calls teaching kids ‘the best thing I do’

By Shannon Burgert

When David Nesbitt landed his first teaching job in 1975, he used his $100 teacher’s budget to buy washers, ropes, string and bricks from the hardware store to teach high school physics. Today, his budget has increased over 5,000-fold, funding six labs filled with multiple colorful lasers, vacuum chambers, photon detectors, football-field–long lengths of electronic cabling, and much, much more.

Nesbitt works for JILA, the joint institute of the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. His work, which spans chemistry, physics and biology, has implications for efficiency in internal combustion in car engines; understanding how RNA molecules regulate gene expression; and how chemistry occurs in the interstellar medium.

Nesbitt’s enthusiasm for just about any topic is infectious, but he particularly lights up when he explains scientific concepts. It is this zeal that led him 20 years ago to become director (aka Chief Wizard) of the CU Science Wizards, an interactive science program for kids of all ages, with a focus on grades 5-9. The free, monthly Saturday-morning shows are hosted by renowned CU professors in different science disciplines. Each show attracts up to 300 people, and Nesbitt is delighted to report that parents who attended the program when they were kids are now bringing their own children.

It’s a joy to watch kids mob the science wizards after a show and treat them like rock stars, Nesbitt says. (In fact, in the world of science, they are rock stars; this year’s lineup includes, for instance, Nobel Prize–winner Eric Cornell.) Directing the program is a lot of work, he says, “but it’s the best thing I do.” Among Nesbitt’s dozens of honors is a 2013 Daily Camera Pacesetter Award for his work in science education.

After Nesbitt received his doctorate in chemical physics at CU, he spent two years as a Miller Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, and then had the opportunity to join JILA and the university’s faculty at Boulder. Nesbitt says CU not only had what it needed to challenge him in science, but Boulder itself was just “a really cool place.” Nesbitt has now lived in Boulder for 30 years. “It was the best choice of my life,” he says.

‘A Space Where Ideas Come’

Science is a passion of Nesbitt’s, but his heart is also drawn to music. In Boulder he sings tenor with Ars Nova Singers. “When I sing, that puts me into a space where ideas come, where connections are made,” he says. The pinnacle of his time as an undergraduate at Harvard was performing with the university’s all-male glee club, which programs an eclectic mix of genres ranging from early Renaissance pieces to tonally challenging new music, all the way to football songs. On a tour of some 20 cathedrals in Europe, the Harvard Glee Club performed in the Vatican for Pope Paul VI’s 10th anniversary, with Leonard Bernstein conducting.

When Nesbitt’s ensemble returned to Harvard, he decided to remain in Germany. A bit of German, in fact, is sprinkled throughout his lexicon when English doesn’t quite fit the bill. Nesbitt is fascinated by language and had considered a career as a linguist. “Foreign language is a lot like a math equation that has many solutions,” he says.

But it was while working in Göettingen, Germany—where Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Max Planck had scribbled the early formulations of quantum physics on tablecloths and napkins—that Nesbitt sealed the deal on a path to science.

Nesbitt says he is so grateful to live in a country in which the pursuit of science is perceived to have both societal and economic value. But, he says with a grin, “the thing about academic science is that I get paid to play with absolutely beautiful toys.”

Wizards 2014 Schedule

Hourlong CU Wizards shows start at 9:30 a.m. in the Cristol Chemistry or Duane Physics buildings. For 2015 dates, parking information and more, check www.colorado.edu/physics/Web/wizards/cuwizards.html. 

  • Sept. 27 | Prof. Lew Harvey,  “Illusion and Reality: The Science of Perception”
  • Oct. 18 | Prof. Veronica Bierbaum,  “The Magic of Chemistry”
  • Nov. 8 | Prof. Eric Cornell, “Speed!”
  • Dec. 6 | Prof. Steve Brown,  “The Chemistry of the Atmosphere”
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