Professor shares science in new media

Bill Hammack’s office is often the scene of the unusual, home to things like the creation of an indoor landfill or the demolition of an old photo copier — or so it would seem.

Hammack, along with 2010 graduate Jon Markowski, has created a series of short videos that explain engineering and science to a general audience, funded through iFoundry, a group on campus aimed at reinventing engineering education.

Hammack completed his master’s and ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University in 1986 and 1988, respectively. He came back to the University to work as a professor and in Public Outreach for the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

In June of last year, Hammack and Markowski began filming the video series, in which Hammack plays a mischievous professor who explains scientific concepts through very visual examples.

His unorthodox approach is meant to highlight the importance of whatever is being taught in the films. In one instance, his character yanks a water pipe out of the ceiling causing water to descend, illustrating the importance of water pipes.

“I wanted a person in them that was a little outside of the social norms so that he could cut things out of the ceiling and do things that were not proper,” Hammack said. Wit is brought into the films as well, as shown by Hammack’s solution to the concrete crash (Call your superior and go on sabbatical).

But none of the oddities really happen — they are done using special effects.

Hammack and Makowski colored the film in Technicolor, which was often used in films of the 1940s and early 1950s and creates hyper-realistic colors.

Hammack said the deep blue shirt worn by his character in the films “really reminds you that this is a very odd world.”

A Walter Mitty poster appears in many of the sets, the style paralleling what Hammack goes for in his films.

“Walter Mitty, it’s a James Thurber story, and it’s a man who imagines himself in all sorts of heroic ways and of course that’s what this person is doing,” Hammack said. “They imagine that they can take things out of the ceiling and they can lie to people on the phone and get away with all sorts of things, and so that sort of echoes them a little bit, that poster in most of the pictures.”

While Hammack came up with the character concept and topics, Markowski filmed and edited the series.

Markowski joined Hammack after receiving an e-mail from iFoundry with a vague opportunity about filming. He had a history related to film, and enjoyed the activity, so he went to meet Hammack.

Markowski said that the two worked well together.

“I’m more visual,” Markowski said. “We both want to do a lot, but Hammack didn’t always see what or how. Sometimes he does, sometimes not.”

Markowski said he learned a lot while filming the series beyond the technical and intellectual absorption. He added that “(Hammack is) very personable but, ‘Not good with groups,’ he’d say, though we work well together.”

Not only did the two collaborate for the films, Markowski helped Hammack with his website.

“It’s much better than what it was,” Markowski said. “Believe me.”

Hammack said Markowski is a gifted editor that was often willing to do whatever he suggested, although for one film, “Copier,” Hammack said Markowski’s directions wore him out. In the opening scene, Hammack is seen pushing a photo copier around the halls of Roger Adams Laboratory Building.

“We shot that about a month before the rest and all I remember is being so tired afterward,” Hammack said. “There is a section of it that if you look carefully I’ll actually ride the photocopier down the ramp because I just couldn’t hold on to it, it was too heavy and I just hopped on, but Jon kept having me push it and do different things and put the camera on it.”

For the same film, Hammack spent five hours dissembling the photocopier, footage which Markowski edited into a three minute video. The end product garnered a large following, including a photocopier repairman who commented that he showed it to his customers to show that a copier isn’t a trivial thing.

Carol Smith, a sixth-grade teacher in Neoga, Ill., also saw Hammack’s films and used them as inspiration for a classroom project. Her students all created films similar to Hammack’s in which they explained science in a hands on, witty way.

The students took apart items including a toilet and a pencil sharpener, activities usually followed by an angry teacher.

Hammack’s videos have been gaining a large following, many with several hundred views on YouTube and some with over 50,000.

Joanne Manaster, life science teaching lab specialist at the University, appeared in a cameo performance in “Copier”, which has accumulated over 70,000 views. She came to know Hammack after a mutual friend introduced them because of their similar interest of putting science to film.

Manaster and Hammack plan to create a new series which will explain the distinction between what a scientist does and what an engineer does.

“Science is searching for something and engineering is solving the problem,” Manaster said, adding that she would cover the science aspect and Hammack the engineering.

“The kind of public that I want to reach is people who haven’t thought about engineering much,” Hammack said. “I want to put it in context and define it for them.”