Dr. Sparks electrifies Pittsburgh kids with scientific silliness

Photo by Tinpan Photography.

Karl Smith has a Ph.D. in biophysics and was a software builder for Amazon, helping to develop its personal assistant Alexa. But his true passion has always been interacting with kids. Just playing around with his young nieces and nephew left him with a longing to do more.

So he quit his job to become a self-employed performer, “Dr. Sparks,” who teaches kids about science with the help of blinking inventions and an array of imaginary animals who live on Mars.

“My love has always been telling stories to children,” says Smith, of Squirrel Hill, who has no kids of his own yet but recently got engaged. “In the back of my mind, I wanted to find a way. I have a combination of stories I’ve written and inventions I’ve made to teach kids science concepts.”

Photo by Tinpan Photography.

It’s a full-time gig. He makes a living by touring schools and performing at UPMC Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The inventions — including suspenders, a pogo stick, juggling balls and a muffin hat — are an important part of getting across the science concepts.

“I’ve taken toys and added sensors and LED lights to them and made them an internet of things. They all talk to one another,’” he says. “The light-up suspenders have two types of LEDs and I can make them change colors to display data from my other inventions.”

Not to give away the magic, but he does so through a Wi-Fi chip that communicates with a little hub in a jewelry box that he has converted into a minicomputer. It’s in the box that holds the juggling balls. There’s also a boat winch that “makes a wonder clicking sound” when he invites a kid onto the stage to crank it to change the rainbow of colors on the suspenders.

“I can control what everything does with the suspenders, which have three buttons,” he says.

Smith began inventing things while studying for his doctorate at the University of Rochester and then while working on Alexa’s voice system — mostly because of a healthy curiosity that he shares with kids.

“They love it,” he says. “They want to know how these things work. And they help me. I want to make the juggling balls bounce. Right now, they’re plastic Christmas ornaments and they’ll break, so I ask them, ‘How can I make these better?’ and they love to brainstorm.”

Most of his shows play to kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, though there are some middle-school students, too. His schedule varies — some weeks he’ll perform every other day or so, and sometimes he’ll do back-to-back shows. On unscheduled weeks, he works on his stories and props.

“The stories that I tell have science concepts embedded in them, so if I do a good job and kids remember the story, they have to remember the science,” he says.

His Martian characters, whose personas he also takes on, are based on animals found in Western Pennsylvania: a gopher, squirrel, deer or firefly. Each animal has a way of teaching the kids something. Martian Gopher, for example, is a trickster who’s always getting into trouble, but he knows mathematics fractions much better than Martian Bear.

“I’m animating some of the stories now, actively making these characters come to life,” says Smith. “I want to use my words and inventions to paint the picture for classic storytime. I would like the kids to use their imaginations and meet me halfway. If I do my job well, they can walk away thinking that stories can be more and do more than they would have ever imagined.”