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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Textbook Guru Teaches Science Can Be Fun

WASHINGTON -- She finished high school at 16, married at 17 and had three kids by 20. Enrolling in night school, she earned her bachelor's degree in five years and became a high school science teacher.


She took up writing late in life, publishing her first book when she was 43. But then she produced 30 more volumes over the next 12 years, all but two of them science-experiment manuals for kids.


Now 55 years old, Janice VanCleave is a million-book-selling author and a grandmother of six.


Recalling a great moment -- her invitation to become an author -- she says, "I had no idea how to write a book.''


That was in 1983. VanCleave, a high school physics and chemistry teacher in Fort Smith, Arkansas, had been running a science enrichment program for grade schoolers.


The program had been mentioned in a catalogue, a copy of which had landed on the desk of Mary Herbert, an editor at Prentice-Hall Publishing. Herbert wrote to VanCleave to ask if she'd like to write a book based on the program.


VanCleave said "Yes! Yes! Yes!'' and set to work on "Teaching the Fun of Physics.'' She found the task daunting: "I thought that I had to type it, draw the pictures, turn it in to them so that it was, like, ready to print.'' In time, she learned that a basic manuscript was all she needed to produce.


The physics book, published in 1985, never sold well. But in writing it, VanCleave hit on the formula that eventually would transform her career and win her fame and glory in the world of elementary education.


The formula entails simple experiments that help young minds grasp scientific principles of all kinds.


A crucial part of each experiment is the final paragraph, in which VanCleave links the result to a lucid discussion of the concept in question. In an expirement called "Hot Box,'' for instance, she touches on visible and infrared light waves and on the trapping and heating effects of Venus's nearly opaque atmosphere.


"Her books are so successful because you can apply them in any situation,'' says Diana Winarski, associate editor for the magazine Teaching K-8. "A babysitter can do these experiments with kids. Teachers can do them in class with little or no resources, which these days is a big issue.''


After her first book was published, VanCleave agreed to write more science manuals for Herbert, who'd gone to work for Dodd-Mead Publishing. In 1988, Dodd-Mead folded, and a completed VanCleave manuscript was bought by John Wiley & Sons. Wiley has been her publisher ever since.


According to Gerard Helferich, publisher of general interest and children's books for Wiley, the firm has sold more than 1.2 million copies of VanCleave's books.


To promote the first one, "Chemistry for Every Kid,'' Wiley sent VanCleave to national trade shows for librarians and science teachers, where she was a big hit, drawing people into the booth. VanCleave still works the conventions, and also commits herself to endless rounds of speeches and workshops at schools, libraries and book stores.


It's hardly the life VanCleave envisioned as a high school kid with a passion for science. Back then, in the late '50s, her idea of success was finishing college and finding steady work as a lab technician.


By the time she got her degree, though, she had three kids, and teaching science let her blend work and motherhood. According to Amil Soliz, a former chemistry student of hers at Sam Houston High School in Houston, VanCleave was a popular instructor with a reputation for fairness and good humor. "Probably more people have trouble with chemistry than any other subject in high school, and she made it fun and easy,'' says Soliz, now a Houston physician who helps VanCleave with medical questions.


After some rookie-writer jitters, VanCleave arrived at the step-by-step format that would characterize all of her experiments. Fourteen years of teaching had shown her that students liked that format. "It's just the scientific method,'' she says. "I never thought about doing it any other way.''


As for devising experiments, VanCleave says her ideas come from science books. She owns more than 1,000 of them and reads voraciously, hunting for "fun facts'' that kids might think are cool. She puts her own touches on experiments published in college textbooks, and invents some from scratch.


VanCleave field-tests her procedures extensively, starting at the Riesel, Texas, ranch house she shares with her husband of 37 years, Wade. Further testing occurs in the Louisville, Kentucky, classroom of Laura Fields Roberts, a kindergarten teacher at St. Matthew's Elementary School. VanCleave and Roberts met a few years ago at a convention and struck up a friendship. Roberts volunteered herself and her pupils as field testers.


VanCleave has written books on biology, chemistry and space; geology, ecology and oceans; electricity, weather and the human body. Still, she says she doesn't worry about keeping up her annual pace of three or four new titles. In the planning stages are a science dictionary and a binder containing copies of 300 of her most popular experiments.


A decade ago, an editor considered Janice VanCleave a publishing experiment. Now she's a proven phenomenon.