LA’s Best Questions

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Let me start with a quote.

“This is not my first rodeo” — Quote by me, at my second rodeo

Last week I participated in a JPL program that supports a Los Angeles School District program (called LA’s Best) to boost elementary school interest in sciences.  Focused on 3-5 grade students participating in science clubs, JPL volunteers go out to one of the schools and talk to the kiddos there in attendance.   Usually, it is split between random questions from the youngins and an activity.  Or at least, so I have heard.  The activity is easy, because it usually involves simple crafts with a tie back to what JPL does, and usually is wrapped up in no time.

This was essentially my second rodeo, so it shouldn’t be that hard.  I thought I would be ready for anything.  I did my research.  I did my planning.  I collected my items to make for a fun activity.  I talked to people who filled in similar roles.  I walk in the door.  I am early, but so are the kids.  Like last year, I barely get through my name and no more get out that I work at JPL and the hands start shooting up with questions.  I knew this was coming, and I knew this was the main part of the gig … I just didn’t expect the first question.

This little blond girl, a face full of freckles, quick on the draw to raise her hand but shy to ask her question lays it out of me:

“Can I call you Bill Nye the Science Guy?  Because I wrote a song for you.”

Yeah, I didn’t know how to shoot down the dreams of today’s youth so suddenly.

The fun part about these kids is that they are so excited about anything science.  You basically have about 20 kids who are at different levels of understanding who all seem unafraid to ask questions – and that’s part of the hope you get from watching them react to the presentation.  Then again there is a bit of a balance struck.  It’s 20 kids and one science club coach – a volunteer as well, but unlike me she lives in that chaos from day to day.

After that, the questions kept coming fast and furious for about 40 minutes.  We talked about Mars, the Moon, Black Holes, and Rockets.  Most of the questions were what you can expect from elementary students, which is pretty awesome for me since it didn’t take me much to sound super smart:

  • Why is Mars red?
  • Is the Moon a planet?
  • Will the sun ever burn out?

That being said, the questions this year became more philosophical than my previous try.  The questions required discussion.

  • What’s inside a black hole?
    • How come we don’t know?
    • Why don’t we just shoot a camera into a black hole and find out?
  • Are there aliens?
    • Where are the aliens?
    • If we think there is life on Mars, how come they don’t come out and say hi?

I did my best to try to answer questions with explanations.  I mean, that’s what Bill Nye the Science Guy would do, right?  Most of the time, I was able to … except once.  Someone asked me “Is the Earth Flat?”  It took all the common sense in my brain to keep me from saying “Seriously kid?  And you are in the Science Club?”  I probably should have said something like, “there are things that would prove the Earth is flat, but not everything.  And everything we know about our planet proves it isn’t flat.  So science wins.”  Instead, I just answered:  “No”

The coach gave me a look at that point that said “welcome to my world.”

Running through all the questions was like a gauntlet of chaos.  When I thought I could search for moments to refocus these kids, I went on the activity.  I chose something that I work with frequently, mitigating risks caused by electrostatic discharge … or more specifically, talking about static electricity.  We all know the simple games you can play with static, and my thought was to pull out my test equipment and measure the amount of static we can create by simple interaction with static insulators.

That’s when I brought out the balloons.

That’s when the coach gave me a look that said: “oh dear god, he brought them noise makers.”

Yeah, like in one of the funnier moments of the day, as I was cleaning up the carcasses of popped balloons and found about 20 leftover uninflated ones, I asked her if she wanted to keep the extras.  She bluntly said, “No, because they’ll just ask me for them.”

Like I felt last year after my first rodeo, I walked out pretty jazzed about doing it.  I tend not to miss an opportunity to do some kind of outreach if JPL lets me.  Each time I do, it has the same effect on me.  I’ve never had a job before JPL that is not only something I am proud to do, but people get excited about us as well.  I don’t always get involved with the aspects of JPL that really change the world … but JPL does change the world.  When I meet people who are as excited about that as I am, I walk away reminded how lucky I am to be doing what I do.

Maybe next time I will be more ready for the questions.

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