'MythBusters' Kari Byron getting kids hooked on science

With her new show "Head Rush," the "MythBusters" co-host is hoping to help kids find the excitement of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

Kari Byron, the co-host of "Mythbusters" Science Channel

SAN FRANCISCO--Think about how fragile an egg is. It seems as if you barely touch one, it cracks open. Now imagine putting something weighing 75 pounds on top of some eggshells. You can just see the fragments flying everywhere, right?

Not in Kari Byron's world.

For Byron, a longtime co-host of the mega-hit Discovery Channel show "MythBusters," demonstrating the amazing strength of eggshells is just one favorite moment of "Head Rush," the new show she's hosting that's aimed at getting middle school kids hooked on science.

Premiering on Monday, the commercial-free "Head Rush" will air each weekday on the Science Channel and give Byron the chance to spin the magic that has made her so popular on "MythBusters" in the hopes of showing kids that science is exciting and worth a whole lot of their time.

Already, Byron and her crew have shot 30 episodes of "Head Rush," sometimes knocking off two a day while she was on break from "MythBusters." And for her, getting the opportunity to delve into many of the mysteries of science--and then explain them to her audience--has been something of a dream come true, especially now that she's a new mother.

For example, in an interview at M7, one of the workshops here where "MythBusters" is filmed, and where much of "Head Rush" was shot, she waxed rhapsodic to CNET about the wonders of "instant snow," a kind of polymer that she investigated on the new show which look like snow when dry, but when wet, "they expand and blow up."

Indeed, she said, it turns out that these polymers are what are used in diapers to keep babies dry. "They absorb water and don't expel."

'Trick them into learning science'
"Head Rush" is the result of conversations that Byron had had with a Science Channel producer about trying to figure out a way to show kids that science is easily worth their after school time (see video below).

"We wanted to come up with something that would kind of target that middle school aged kid," Byron said, "so that when they get out of school, [they don't] go home and stop learning. Instead, we'll trick them into learning science."

In that, Byron said, "Head Rush" is similar to "MythBusters. It's just aimed specifically at kids. And as such, it will air each weekday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., with no commercials. The show is part of President Obama's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Initiative, which is geared toward "moving American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade."

And while it might seem difficult to convince kids that they should drop their video games and their cartoons and their text messaging for science, imagine the charismatic Byron talking to them through their TVs about the science behind fainting goats.

As she put it, there is something in these goats' DNA that makes them stiffen up all over and faint when they're startled. And on "Head Rush," she delved into this, giving her audience the chance to see what's behind this odd phenomenon that has produced more than 8 million views on YouTube.

Though Byron is a huge fan of famous TV science educators like Bill Nye the Science Guy, she also thinks there's a lot of room on TV for a new kind of role model to help show kids why science is fun and exciting, and who is not the sort of typical "nerdy white guy" that has so long been associated with TV science education.

And that's particularly important today, she said, in an age when 12-year-olds are inundated with glamor everywhere they look on TV, from Paris Hilton to movie stars. "I'm not your typical talking head," she said. "It might spark an interest" in kids.

A big part of "Head Rush" will be Byron bringing in actual scientists who will give presentations of their expertise. And that's vital, she suggested, since she's no scientist herself.

"I'm obviously not [someone] with a science background," she said. "They're learning with me. You don't have to be a scientist to be interested in science.

But one of the best things about making "Head Rush," she said, has been getting the chance to discover a great deal of new things on the fly.

"All the subjects we're talking about, I'm learning them as we go," Byron said. "I'm authentically excited about them. Oh my God, I have to tell you about the Hawk Wasp."

That, she explained, is a strange kind of beast that lays eggs inside tarantulas. You'll have to watch "Head Rush" to find out more.

New audiences
Clearly, the Science Channel is looking for the kinds of hosts that can generate all-new audiences, especially for subject matter like science.

For example, Byron said, when actor Morgan Freeman began hosting a new science-related show called "Through the Wormhole," a great deal of African-Americans began watching.

And with "Head Rush," that's obviously what's going on--except that the network wants kids, and probably their parents, to join the roster of its viewers.

Perhaps she's just giving the company line, but to hear Byron say it, her desire to spark an interest in science in a new generation is real. "Personally," she said, "I would really like to see our country getting back into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I want to see a lot of different opinions and different people approaching problems."

And she knows that even a single piece of video can make a difference in a kid's life. After all, she recalled watching Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video when she was a kid, "and for the rest of my life, I wanted to do special effects, and that's how I ended up here."

For now, though, she's keeping her eyes on the goal at hand: getting the show off the ground and trying to build an audience, ideally by demonstrating her own enthusiasm for the subject matter.

"I'm not [just] talking to [the kids]," she said. "I'm kind of learning with them. They're on the journey with me."

All summer, Geek Gestalt was on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I was looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. You can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.