Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It’s Still Rocket Science to Me

“Let’s have applause for CLARE OF SCIENCE!”

A girl of about 10, keeping her hat out of her eyes, has just successfully completed a challenging study of centripetal force.  Using the test apparatus provided, she has demonstrated the fundamental principle that keeps satellites in orbit, and would function as a primary mechanism of providing artificial gravity to astronauts during long duration spaceflight missions.  And more impressively, she demonstrated these principles flawlessly on her first attempt, confirming the hypothesis that inducing sufficient angular momentum and torque can create forces to compensate for friction, gravity, inertia, and drag.

She used a jumprope, a cutting board, and a glass of water.

Welcome to the educational (and a bit irreverent) explorations of Doktor Kaboom!’s “It’s JUST Rocket Science” show.    I was pleased that INSGC could provide sponsorship for the show, which promised to be a fun and accessible introduction to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education for K-12 audiences.  But the messages were even more powerful than that.  It’s a bit of comedy, it’s definitely science, and we even saw a rocket (made of 2 liter soda bottles) launch into the balcony of Loeb Hall, using nothing more than vinegar and baking soda (the latter conveniently wrapped in tissue paper to serve as a timer).  

Doktor Kaboom aims for the... balcony.

In the persona of a German scientist, Doktor Kaboom discussed Newton’s Laws, and the essential processes of science (it’s not about calculations and operations, but curiosity and observation), and the importance of safe laboratory techniques (practiced with an intelligent adult)… as well as a lesson or two in self esteem and confidence in the face of subjects that most of us are taught to be scared and ineffective.

Doktor Kaboom prepares CRAIG OF SCIENCE for rocket propulsion.

“When I ask you if you are a smart young man/woman, say YAH!”  Why is it that we teach our children to devalue their own skills in mathematics and science?  Why do we relegate fundamental skills to those strange and magical people who are “good at math,” and claim that the rest of us can’t do it, and can’t do anything about it?  Science isn’t hard.  It just takes effort.  You may not get it right the first time.  That’s okay.  Most of us do science all the time.  Some of the best audience participation of the show came from a “math trick” that Doktor Kaboom showed: how to multiply any two-digit number by 11, faster than using a calculator.   It’s not cheating, it’s not magic.  It’s a tool.  In general, he explained, math is not just about numbers, any more than literature is just about letters.  Math is about patterns.  Numbers are just an alphabet we use.  (I will admit that it was at exactly that point that I became a confirmed fan of Doktor Kaboom.  I’ve tried to say the same thing.  But he’s funnier.)

Steal this video!  Yes, the good Doktor put in a plug for his DVD, “Don’t Try this at Home!” Yes, you can get it in the lobby.  Yes, it’s available on the website.  But enough people buy it to make him happy (and keep him in safety goggles).   “If you make unauthorized copies of it… I don’t care!”  In other words, the message of getting kids (and their parents) turned on to, and more comfortable with, and more capable in, science is his real mission.  It’s not very often that you hear any scientist’s or engineer’s passion come through so clearly, so void of self-interest, so focused on what is needed in our society to make society (and not just that individual scientist or engineer) better off.
I cannot thank enough the Ann Broughton and the students of Purdue Space Day for helping out with stomp rockets and balloon rocket cars and planispheres and just lots of kid-focus STEM fun.  Even Doktor Kaboom remarked on how special this was, leaving us with a memorable day, and a very successful hands-on pre-show activity.  It was memorable in several ways: one budding rocket scientist managed to lodge a rocket in one of the Loeb lobby clocks.  Great fun, and the rocket remained there for the rest of the afternoon. 

Don’t underestimate how much a bit of inspiration can do.  I can still credit my visits to the Franklin Institute, and the impact of my elementary and middle school teachers, in helping me to believe that maybe I could become a real rocket scientist.   And I did.  One of those kids in the Doktor Kaboom / Purdue Space Day audience may grow up, go to college, and become the Purdue Space Day Director.  

Purdue Space Day Exec Board members help bring rocket science to kids before the Doktor Kaboom show.

Clare and Craig of Science may become real researchers someday.   The first thing we need to do is give them the opportunity and encouragement to try.  The second is to stop telling them that it’s not for them.  Science is everywhere.  Everyone uses it, and everyone needs it.  If we forget this, as Doktor Kaboom said, we’ll be lost and at the mercy of those in other countries who do understand and value science and math, creativity and investigation.  But wait.  That’s not funny.  That’s not a message for a kids’ show.  Or is it?  Those kids in the audience—they had parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends’ parents, and those people have an impact.  No eight year old can say, based only on their own experience, that girls can’t grow up to be astronauts, or that it’s too hard for boys to sit still and behave long enough to learn their math facts.  Someone taught them that, and someone can teach them that it’s wrong.  We don’t even need to wait as long as the New York Times did to retract its editorial denouncing Robert Goddard’s beliefs that rockets don’t push against the atmosphere, but eject gas under pressure (another important lesson Kaboom highlighted… using a paint can, a bit of water, and a heater)

See, it’s just rocket science.