When Carnegie Mellon alumnus John Cohn (E '91) takes center stage, elementary school kids across the country can expect a show like no other. Even when presenting to a packed audience at Walt Disney World, he takes the "ordinary" out of electricity and turns it upside down for all to see. (Watch the CNN video.)
Cohn is a man on a mission: to get kids excited about science. His thrilling demonstrations include firing a ping-pong ball from a cannon through several pizza boxes at his Kevlar-protected chest to using homemade Tesla coils for generating a three-foot spark that jumps into his hand.
"I'm not trying to turn everyone into a scientist," said Cohn, who is chief scientist of design automation at IBM (think Xbox and Wii Sports) and dedicates at least two hours a week to educational outreach. "I try to make people appreciate how cool science is."
He adds, "I'm very interested in art. The way people think art is beautiful, I think science is beautiful. I want to show people that."
And he'll use just about any object to do that — Rice Krispies and pickles are no exception. This wizard even produces 10,000 Volts of lightning so kids can watch it climb the poles of a Jacob's ladder.
"When you share it with others, it keeps that fire going in you," Cohn explained. "It's restorative. But I also bring so much back to my work from my shows."
Cohn recently received IBM's highest honor when he was named an IBM Fellow, of which there are only 62 out of 300,000 employees. He encourages everyone to participate in outreach programs, noting that many are available through employers, including Carnegie Mellon University.
In addition to his educational outreach work through IBM's On Demand Community, Cohn has entertained kids for the past 15 years by playing a mad scientist in his stage show "Jolts and Volts," which he began as a way of bonding with his own three kids.
"I encourage people to get out there, find your passion and share it with kids," said Cohn, whose world changed when his 14-year-old son Sam passed away in 2006. He's since continued his outreach with even more passion.
"It made me more inspired to get people excited about the beauty of science and math," Cohn said. "At their innermost being, I believe everyone is an inventor, and I want them to tap into it."
Cohn considers people his greatest resource.
"I formed such an incredible network at Carnegie Mellon," he said, and advises others to do the same. "Pay attention to your network. The people you know, they are one of the most valuable assets you have."