Meet Alex Martin, a local middle school math teacher at Manatee Learning Academy who also has a passion for science and astronomy. Martin is the author of seven science fiction books (in fact, one of them, called Belvun, comes out today). And while his work is fiction, he draws on many of the principles he's learned in his science education—including the wonders of outer space.
In fact, Martin is so passionate about science that he started an organization called the Sidewalk Science Center, where he shares free science experiments for kids at local parks. He brings a table, chairs and any other supplies he needs, and allows curious passersby to join his experiments. Martin has held almost 350 Sidewalk Science Center sessions across 20 cities.
Locally, the Sidewalk Science Center can be found at Bayfront Park in Sarasota and Riverwalk in Bradenton three to four times per week. Martin, along with an environmental biologist, puts more than 30 rotating experiments on for the kids.
"This all began in 2018 in Savannah, Georgia, where I previously lived," Martin explains. "I had a website for bonus content related to one of my books, and had the idea to create a video series where I would interview people on the street about science questions."
This "man on the street" style worked for Martin. He asked questions like, "Why does the sun set at different times of day?" or "What is heat?" He loved the opportunity to educate others, and the video series eventually morphed into full-blown experiments.
Martin was unemployed when he started making videos, but he eventually got a job at the Savannah Children's Museum, where he found teaching kids science was even more fun. After spending five months in Georgia, he moved to Sarasota and began scoping out the local park scene for a new place to set up shop.
"The weather is so beautiful all year round in Sarasota, so I knew it'd be a great spot for the Sidewalk Science Center," says Martin. "Since we began in 2020, we've had a steady number of visits from locals and visitors."
But Sarasota is not the only location Martin has his eye on. Although he's settled here, he doesn't pass up the chance to take his science show on the road. He's traveled to Denver, Colorado, and 16 cities along the east coast, from Baltimore to Miami. More than 40,000 people have visited his table stands since he began Sidewalk Science Center three years ago, he says.
So, what kinds of science-y things can kids expect to learn when they show up to one of Martin's tables?
"A popular experiment is called the Gravity Chain, where a 50-foot-long plastic string of beads is wound up into a Chinese takeout bucket," Martin says. "An edge of the string is pulled over the edge of the bucket, and when you pull the string hard enough, the entire string will fall out of the bucket by itself." This is supposed to teach physics concepts like inertia, momentum and balance.
Another favorite is called Flying Cups, which shows a concept called the Magnus Effect. An example is the curved trajectory a baseball makes when thrown into the air. Kids can also learn about magnets, sound and light refraction, biology by looking under a microscope and astronomy with one of Martin's telescopes.
"We use real-life examples to answer questions like, 'how do cameras work?" or 'how do rainbows form?'" says Martin. "I've been seeing some of the same families come out through the years and it's amazing how much they learn and retain."
While Martin doesn't have nonprofit status just yet, he does accept donations to the Sidewalk Science Center, which is completely self-funded. His effort also stays alive through attending public markets, doing private parties and appearing at other local events.
And if the moon and stars are your thing, join Martin at Bayfront Park this Saturday, Oct. 16, from 7 to 9 p.m. The Sidewalk Science Center will be celebrating NASA's International Observe the Moon Night with a free viewing party.
To learn more about the Sidewalk Science Center, click here.