Charles Walter John Scaife, a chemistry professor who made learning fun, died on Aug. 24 from liver cancer. He was 65.
As a child, Scaife wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a math teacher. While attending college at Cornell, however, he was so inspired by an innovative science professor that he switched majors and received his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in chemistry.
After serving a three year stint in the Navy, Scaife became a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of York in England. In 1972, he landed a teaching job at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and began teaching the wonders of science. While wearing brightly patterned lab coats, Scaife encouraged students to understand chemistry by doing experiments with balloons and Alka Selzer.
In 1986, he helped student Rich Cavoli develop an experiment that focused on growing crystals in space, and received permission from NASA to have the project placed on the Challenger space shuttle. When the shuttle exploded, Scaife toured the country, talking to elementary and middle school students about the experiment. The project later flew on the Discovery mission.
After 20 years in the classroom, Scaife applied for a sabbatical and created a traveling science show. He and his wife Priscilla drove all over the country and performed for over 40,000 students. He conducted these shows on his own dime until the National Science Foundation and the Dreyfus Foundation offered him funding.