Science with a `Boom'

For five decades, Preston Q. Boomer's unique and creative teaching style has kept students at one California high school riveted

March 16, 2007|By John M. Glionna | John M. Glionna,Los ANgeles Times

FELTON, Calif. — The Boom" is bouncing around the classroom like an overgrown kid. With his bushy gray eyebrows and mad scientist's grin, he's demonstrating the density of methane to 25 rapt teenagers at San Lorenzo Valley High School.

"Let's see if we can do this without burning the place up again," he says.

"Again?" gasps one girl.

Explosions are nothing new to Preston Q. Boomer's physics and chemistry classes. Neither are flash fires, electric shocks, spark-spitting transformers or deafening gongs, sirens and klaxons. He begins many lectures with the subversive come-on: "Want to blow something up today?"

It's the Boom's Big Bang Theory of teaching: Noise is fun, even instructive. But his wacky experiments can go awry. One day the cops showed up as a result of a half-baked Boomer stunt. The teacher was testing whether a 1.5-million-volt Tesla coil could shoot a spark across the room. In the process, he cut off all police radio communications for miles.

Boomer's reaction: "Neat!"

Preston Boomer is 75.

He's been teaching science at the same school near Santa Cruz since 1956, the year Elvis Presley released "Heartbreak Hotel." He's had 8,000 students in the past half-century - three generations of some families. Many teachers and administrators once sat in his class. He often hears from former students long retired. But like the Robert Crumb cartoon posted in his class, he prefers to "Keep on Truckin'."

High school graduates everywhere can recall a teacher who was a favorite despite the generational divide. Boomer is that teacher taken to the next level. He is one of fewer than 20 California instructors with 50 or more years in the classroom. It's not just his longevity that amazes colleagues and students; so does his energy.

Boomer's pension now outpaces his salary, so he'd make more money if he called it quits. Yet with no mandatory retirement in his district, he says his goal is to remain "until they drag my corpse off the lab table."

There's this thing about retired teachers, he says: "Before you know it, they're dead."

Boomer says he has missed work only twice in five decades, - once for a conference, the other time for his grandfather's funeral. He often walks with a cane and likes to riff on his advancing age, telling students he was conceived in the rumble seat of a 1931 Model A.

The Boom (the nickname is short for Boomer, not an explosion) is a master teacher, stand-up comic and circus showman. To the kids, he's Yoda with a chemistry set. Or a character from a "Far Side" cartoon.

He's also an innovator - the first instructor in his district to use computers and PowerPoint demonstrations as teaching tools - and a tough disciplinarian who bills his "Big Chem" and "Mighty Physics" classes as rigorous college boot camps.

The lessons don't stop at school. The grandfather of two often hosts students at "Boomeria," a Disneyland for science geeks that he and his students have created over the years at his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Boomeria features a wooden castle and guard towers, a 2,000-pipe organ housed in its own chapel - even a working guillotine with a steel blade that students use to cut watermelons, not necks.

Students often wage "war," marauding through Boomeria's hand-dug catacombs, firing water cannons and hurling eggs and water balloons from catapults.

There's a method here: Teens learn about concepts such as water propulsion and the fact that it takes just a tad of zinc mixed with sulfur to make an explosion. All while the self-proclaimed "King of Boomeria" plays a dirge on the mammoth pipe organ.

His tutelage has paid off. Ex-students e-mail to say his lessons primed them for their toughest college classes. Many Boomer graduates have gone on to lucrative careers. Most attribute their continued love affair with science and technology to the teacher they call their most influential childhood mentor.

One of them, Hoyt Yeatman, became a Hollywood visual-effects supervisor and in 1989 won an Academy Award for the special effects in the film The Abyss.

"The most important thing I learned from Boom is that you don't have to grow up to grow old," said Yeatman, 52. "He still plays in this fantasy world, even as an adult. Many of us eventually lose those childlike abilities, but he's stubbornly held on to them. I've used his inspiration throughout my entire career."

Yeatman's mother, Marie, now 81, at first worried about the eccentric teacher - enough to check out Boomeria for herself.

"It didn't look dangerous," she said. "Of course, that was before the guillotine."

Before Boomer's ankles gave out, janitors each summer had to replace floor tiles worn down by his incessant pacing.

In a fast-moving lecture, he handles such dense concepts as the Doppler effect, shock waves and sonic booms. In a spiel on beat frequency, he plays a few notes of the Sonny and Cher song "The Beat Goes On."

"You guys were born in the wrong time," he tells his class. "The hippie era was really fun."

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