Expecting LA’s Best


Here’s a hint, when talking to kids about NASA, expect the unexpected.

There are a couple days now that I list under my “favorite JPL Days of the Year”, and one just passed.  About a week ago, I volunteered to present at a local elementary school as part of the Los Angeles School District’s LA’s Best program.  This afterschool program funds and supports afterschool clubs in the areas of interest that 3rd thru 5th graders may be interested in.   Honestly, the kids that are in attendance a fair big distance from picking where they end up, but our involvement does seem to spark a heck of a lot of excitement over space and science.

This is the third year I volunteered, and what really kicked this event off that separated it from the previous two was that  … I got training before I walked in the door.  The last couple of times, I had to miss the training and didn’t know what to expect.  Now that I  know what to expect, I got told what to expect.

And still, things went unexpected.

The process always goes – I walk in, I say I work for JPL, then I ask if anyone has any questions.  The following half-hour is nothing but hands in the air and randomness.  Most of the time, they are asking fundamental space questions – for instance, each year I was asked what was in a black hole, and how many planets are there in the universe. – both questions with weird answers and I am not the one to ask, but I’m the one in the cool JPL shirt.   I tend to get the kids focused on JPL missions — what’s coming up, what’s going on, that sort of thing.  That’s easy for me to do because that’s the stuff I get interested in.  Where things go off the rail is the intangible questions.

I mean, I like that I had engineering minds trying to figure out how they could throw a camera down a black hole,  I like that the scientists from the year before were debating what constitutes a planet.

This year, they got personal.

They asked me why I wanted to work for JPL.

They asked me what I wanted to do with my career … 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders asking this.  Sometimes my own management won’t ask me that question.

They asked me what was the biggest failure in my life.  Not what NASA or JPL’s failure. … mine.

Then came the question that forced me to think fast, but had the greatest reaction:
Girl:  “How much money does JPL pay you?”
Me:  “Enough that I can afford a dog.”

As much fun as answering questions was, we spent a little time watching a rover drive over a speed bump on my IPad before building straw rockets and making a mess.

In many ways, what I was doing could come across dumb or goofy., and I am already rolling my eyebrows at whatever my dad (the retired teacher) is going to say about inspiration and junk.  Then again, I walked into that event with someone in mind.  My high school chemistry teacher, the one person I can point to that would have led me down an engineering path, passed away the day before the event.  It’s still etched in my memory the day he taught us about Avrogado’s Number (aka a mole, aka 6.02 x 10^23) by sitting on top of the bench at the front of the class.  I thought of that and I thought, there are stranger ways to inspire people.


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