Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists
After snapping a few photos with the full-size inflatable model of the Curiosity rover, I went directly to the Discovery Dome, an inflatable planetarium. “We Choose Space!” was playing, a planetary show about human space exploration. A 360° panorama of the moon greeted me, an astronaut to one side, the moon buggy to another, and pristine moon dust under a black starry sky all around. The moon explorer talking about his experience spoke with the same reverence as John Muir held when he spoke about what is now Yosemite National Park. Sitting inside and staring up, just as much in wonder as all the little children and their families sharing the space, I felt awed by all that we have accomplished and the discoveries to come.
I was attending the Exploration Station, an annual free event held by the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco that exposes the public (especially children) to earth and space science research, technology and hands-on experiments. The format is much like SanFrancisco's famous Exploratorium: the museum of science, art and human perception, which received the National Science Board's 2011 Public Service Award. Looking at their site, I noticed one of the many things you can do there right now is create your own Petroglyph.
The Exploration Station is a free four-hour-long event which exposes children to exhibits and projects that encourage an interest in science. They talk to scientists, learn about the natural world, and engage in hands-on activities. I've visited before, and I was excited to see what was in store this time.
This year edible projects sweetened the deal. Children could decorate a cookie to look like the sun, complete with candy dots for sunspots and licorice to represent solar flares. Spreading knowledge of the Sun is part of the mission of Sun-Earth Day, an educational program by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency. FrontierScientists has already looked at how NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory investigates Solar Weather. At the Exploration Station for NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, there were s'more and candy supplies to make a mini model of the satellite that will soon be orbiting the earth investigating magnetic reconnection - the interaction between the Sun and Earth's magnetic fields. Chocolate solar panels, anyone?
Some of the exhibits were high-tech. The Space Sciences Lab at University of California Berkeley had a heat-sensor camera set up; children were drawing beards on their chins with icecubes as I walked by. Elsewhere you could jump to simulate an earthquake, blow air or shout into a sensor that measured air pressure, or pretend to be high up in the atmosphere as sensors mimicking those that measure clouds from satellite recorded your 'altitude', then see the readings taken onscreen in real time. The California area 4-H Youth Development Program had an exhibit that looked especially engaging. Their 2012 experiment, the Eco-Bot Challenge, calls on young people to design a robot which can clean an environmental spill. Even young children were able to understand giving a robot's body "an engine to make it go," and a battery to power the engine. Many helped connect wires and tape the little robots together, then turned them on and watched in amazement as they whirred and vibrated, cleaning up an environmental spill (rice spilled on a cookie sheet for this family-friendly station).
Other experiments were classics. Elsevier, the Earth and Planetary Science Journals, had a presentation of what happens when volcanoes erupt with water and baking soda. Kids could decorate little bottles with clay to look like a real volcano, and take them home along with instructions for parents to help craft more eruptions. "What comes out of a volcano, do you know?" an Elsevier presenter asked. The kids shouted "Lava!" with explosive enthusiasm. Another display provided boxes and kaleidoscopes that separated light into different wavelengths, helping kids explore the electromagnetic spectrum to help teach about the Fermi Large Area Telescope, a spacecraft that examines gamma rays, scanning the whole sky every three hours. Elsewhere there was sand and grit to sift like an archaeologist, and you could even make a cloud in a bottle. Hands-on activities engage bodies and minds.
These kid-friendly activities represent a good connection in the classroom. When I asked more detailed questions, many presenters asked 'Are you a teacher?' and offered education materials for the classroom or links where it materials could be found online. Some presenters were teachers who had adapted offered science projects for their own classrooms and met with great success.
Science gets kids engaged. Just like during the International Polar Week, kids at the Exploration Station participated in the Ice Core Art Project, the Flakes, Blobs and Bubbles Activity hosted by (ARCUS) the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. Another science and education program, the Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program, had children crafting cloud-scapes. Classroom instructions included how to assess local clouds and add student-generated information to a national database. Pretty cool.
And when experiments target today's climate issues, like oceans acidifying, it helps get students engaged in their ever-changing world. Ocean FEST (Families Exploring Science Together) added acid to the 'coral reef', showing how it dissolved as a result. These are visible effects children can grasp, and will hopefully inspire students to pursue ocean science careers.
These efforts remind me of some of the great science educators. Don Herbert as Mr. Wizard. William Sanford "Bill" Nye in Bill Nye the Science Guy. I grew up hungering for shows like this that made science fun and accessible. And how many of you have seen Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a science interest series that garnered a stunningly wide audience in America and across the globe. Cosmos, by the way, is slated to be remade. It just shows how people continue to hunger for science.
Clara Ma is the lucky student who got to name the Mars Rover Curiosity. She says: "Science is a language that needs no translation. It doesn't matter where you’re from or what you look like -- you just have to have a thirst for knowledge and a passion for learning in order to succeed. People often ask me why we go to faraway places like Mars. Why do we explore? My answer to that is simple: because we can. Because we’re curious."
Trying to sate our neverending curiosity, and getting large doses of science in the meantime, is what we need to inspire students and to keep our own agile minds engaged with the world we live in. I'm absolutely certain that some of the children at AGU's Exploration Station will be future scientists.
FrontierScientists is attending the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2012.
* Exploration Station: Education Activities at AGU Meetings by the American Geophysical Union accessed Dec 02 2012 http://education.agu.org/education-activities-at-agu-meetings/exploration-station/
* At Age 11, This Girl Named the Curiosity Rover by Clara Ma posted Nov 16 2012 on Mashable http://mashable.com/2012/11/16/clara-ma-curiosity-rover/