I have always had daydreams of being a world-changer. For some folks it's rocking out at Madison Square Garden or winning an Oscar. I visualize myself leading a movement to establish human rights, Eleanor Roosevelt style. Of delivering grand, motivating speeches to millions of citizens, or of leading groups of people to a better future against an oppressive force. As Proust said, “If we are to make reality endurable, we must all nourish a fantasy or two.”
In reality, I realize I don't have the patience to get into politics or the personality to inspire a nation, so like most folks I've had to look for my own, personal means of fighting for a cause.
In college I volunteered to register students to vote (it was the year of a presidential election), but the alarming number of times I heard questions ranging from "You have to register to vote?" to "What's the election for?" were enough to make me run away screaming. (That's aside from the people who simply said "no thank you.") I know stronger people would have seen that as a reason to stay, but like I said, I'm not actually cut out for such grand pursuits. (I also realize this says something very tragic about my school and my generation.)
I started learning about service opportunities in physics when I was interning at the American Physical Society in 2007. On a trip to an APS meeting in New Orleans, I accompanied the APS's two outreach guru's, Becky and Jessica, to a private, all-girl's elementary school, where we did a demo show for two 3rd and 5th grad classes, and it was a revelation.
That demo show went SWIMMINGLY. We broke boards with our hands, Karate-style (break them with the grain and even a never-taken-Karate-weakling like myself can break them). We made it look like Becky was going to pop a water balloon over my head, only to have it (amazingly!) remain whole. I love this one because I get to twist my face in nervous anticipation, and the girls squealed as the pin went into the balloon - only to cry out in joy when nothing happened (put a piece of scotch tape over the spot where you poke the balloon and the pin won't break the surface). The 3rd graders hung on our every word, screamed when we made something go BANG! and lit up when we did the glowing pickle experiment (you put two ends of an electrode in opposite ends of a pickle and...you know what, don't try that one at home).
We made liquid nitrogen ice cream; we played with physics toys after the show; I had a ball. I thought: I can do this. And for at least an instant, I'm sure I entertained a day dream in which I became a widely-known demo guru, and inspired children all over the country to pursue physics. Perhaps one day, many years from now, I would be thanked in a Nobel Prize speech as having planted the seeds of discovery in that great mind.
I've since written an article for APS News on the increase in "demo" shows at universities around the country. The definition of a demo show, which I gathered while researching the piece, is a system or set-up where one variable can be changed, in order to demonstrate the effect of that variable on the system. However, it can also demonstrate multiple concepts. But mostly, it's a physics toy. Here's an example, from that article:
Take, for example, a demo that Maiullo did in a video for The New York Times online. The set- up is a glass beaker placed next to a speaker that lets out one steady note with an adjustable frequency. Maiullo tunes the frequency of the sound waves until they reach the resonant frequency of the glass, and in a startling burst, the beaker shatters.
In this case, the frequency is the variable we can change. You have to hit the right frequency to get the glass to break, so the audience can see the impact of that one variable at different values.
“There’s a lot of teaching that goes on if demos are done correctly,” [Maiullo] said. “You don’t want to hide any of the physics, but you can jazz it up in lots of different ways and make something that’s eye-catching. That creates a memory trigger, and those are great for educating.”
Personally, I'd dare to expand that definition to say that not all demo's successfully isolate a single variable, but they should make the watcher stop and think about what variables are in that system. For example, I love showing kids how to make an "air cannon" out of oatmeal containers and plastic bags. You cut a hole in the bottom of the oatmeal container about an inch across, and cover the top with a slightly slack plastic bag. If you give the bag a quick little push, a very compact burst of air comes out the bottom. It always surprises the kids to feel that sudden pulse on their face. And if you're willing to spring for it, there's the Air Zooka that will send a pocket of wind across a room. When I do this demo I like to ask the kids questions like "Can you feel air? Can you hold air? We breath air, but can we drink it? Can you give me a handful of air?" The idea is to make them think about what air actually is, by letting them play with it.
Demo's fall under the larger category of "informal" or "non-traditional" science education, which basically refers to science education outside the classroom setting (many classroom teachers are incorporating demo's and other "non-traditional" approaches to education into their curriculum, so I think it is the physical boundaries of a classroom that separate these things). In my research I've found that many people who don't necessarily want to become classroom teachers, but still want to get involved in science education, find their place in this "informal" arena. Many of them are at museums or science centers. Classroom science education is the bedrock, and without it, the informal education couldn't exist. Together they form a much more dynamic and well-rounded experience for students.
When I found out about non-traditional science education, I found the volunteer calling that I was looking for. In retroscpect, it was one of the most wonderfully fulfilling things I have ever done, and I can't wait to do it again. That said, it was a total burning disaster.
Fast forward three years later, to my first solo demo show. When I moved to New York City I found an organization called Learning Leaders, which has a sub-group called Authors Read Aloud. Learning Leaders is one of the largest volunteer learning organizations in the city and their programs extend from very fun, light-hearted Kindergarten stuff, to career counseling and college planning for seniors. They work in schools with some of the highest student drop-out rates and percentage of students living below the poverty line. I worked it out with the organizer, a wonderful woman named Susie, that while I was technically a writer, I'd rather do science demo's. She was thrilled at the idea, and wanted to come watch. I then decided that an elementary-school appropriate demonstration of "science writing" would be having the kids draw pictures of something they had liked about the show.
I would be going into a public school in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where many of the students had, at one time or another, lived in shelters, and many of which did not live with their parents. I was told to prepare for many of them to have under developed social skills and manners as a result. I asked for 3rd and 5th graders, because I'd worked with them before.
I spent two days and probably $40 on supplies. I ran tests, I practiced on my coworkers. I planned back-up demo's, and so when I got to the school and asked for a bunsen burner and was handed a hotplate, I was still OK. I was prepared, and I had done this before.
But I was nervous. Paralyzing nerves shook me as I walked to the school. I have never been afraid of talking in front of people I don't know; but I felt like something higher was at stake here. What if the opposite of my demo fantasy happened - what if I turned the kids off to science? What if the teachers were so embarrassed they asked me to never come back? I'm normally the kind of person who can say "What's the worst that can happen?" and deal with that situation. But I felt as if I had someone else's future in my hands, and that requires a great deal of confidence to handle.
The first classroom is a bit of a blur. I had rehearsed my explanations in my head, but as they stumbled out of my mouth, divided by awkward gaps of silence in between, I realized just how nervous I was, and how I had prepared what boiled down to a very short lecture, but a lecture none the less. I don't know if you know this, but 3rd graders don't like lectures.
But this was all from me. The kids were great, and I'm not even sure they noticed my nerves. When I was a kid I learned that you can stand on an empty soda can and it will hold you up. The physics lesson is that something can have strength in one direction and not another, and that one small fault in a structure can, in some cases, bring down the entire thing. I love this demo if only for the fact that I pick the smallest kid in the room to come up and crush an empty can, just to demonstrate how easy it is to crush a can on the long sides. The little girl I got to do this was so fabulous, and crushed the can with such gusto I worried she'd rip it in half. That's what she chose to draw.
But the next part of this demo, where someone stands on the can, only works if two things happen: one, there are no dents in the can, and two, the person standing on it has an idea of what to expect.
But the soda cans I brought were dented from the trip over and I had the brilliant idea of letting one of the teachers stand on the can. The poor woman didn't know what happened when the can not only crushed underneath her, but shot out from under her foot, almost sender her over. If the can had gone in the wrong direction I might have had a law suit on my hands.
Just about every other demo had something go slightly wrong, either with my explanation or the execution. I was flushed with embarrassment when this happened, although overall the kids really seemed to enjoy it.
In the hall on the way to the next class, one of the student teachers walked with me. He didn't praise my performance only said with genuine grattitude, "Thank you for coming."
I said I was happy to, and that I hoped I was teaching them some concepts.
"Well, you know, they don't need to be learning concepts all the time."
It struck me as odd, and then quite profound. Why should I try so hard to make sure these kids were learning cold hard facts for the entire presenation? Why wasn't it enough to go in and simply have fun with them while doing science? (I even wrote a blog post about this philosophy, yet it escaped me in my own efforts).
Another one of the teachers said something similar later. "You know you're just teaching them to look at things in a different way."
Teaching someone to look at something in a different way - that actually sounds so much more daunting than getting someone to memorize a fact. But the kids were clearly more open to the former. Maybe that's the difference between kids and adults.
The second classroom will live in my own personal infamy. When I interviewed my friend Becky for the article, I recanted the events to her, but she wasn't the least bit surprised. She just said, "Oh yeah! Demo's go wrong all the time. That's why we train people on how to do them; you have to know how the demo works or you won't know what to do when it breaks."
I wish I'd heard that before my own demo show; it might have made me feel less guilty about what happened.
The second classroom only had one teacher, yet it also had more children with behavioral and social problems than the last. The teacher was very firm, and I was amazed at how well she kept order. When I started giving my presentation she wrote up an outline and then went over it with the kids at the end. She also had them discuss with their "neighbor" what they were going to draw, before they did so. These are both tips I've incorporated into my routine.
I had the same problems with the cans in that class - yet another flying metal object that could have ended badly. I also do a demo called the "Greek Waiters Tray," which has become my demo rock. A cup of water rests on a plate suspended by three strings (like a tire swing). If you swing it fast enough, it is possible to swing the plate and the cup upside down by the strings, without any water spilling out (centripetal force). When the kids say it must be glued on or empty, you lift up the cup or splash them with water (the better, albeit messier way to do this is to stop the swing abruptly at the bottom of its rotation, so the cup and the water fly forward onto the kids).
("My favorite part was when she swinged the cup and the water did no fall out.")
The kids in this class, however, got the idea that if they stuck something in the swing's path, like a yard stick, they could wreak some havoc. They actually came over to me, eyes wide with innocence, holding the yard sticks behind their backs and asked me to do it again. In thinking about it, I realize these kids might actually make good physicists. They saw a system and decided to see what would happen when they messed with it.
Then came time for the water balloon demo. This is the one where I pop a water balloon with a needle, then secretly put tape on a second water balloon, and stick the needle in where the tape is. The balloon holds together, the kids are surprised, it's wonderful. Except for a few things. First, the balloons I found were party balloons, not water balloons, and I made the first one too small. When I tried to pop it, it just sprung a leak, but remained whole (oh, the terrible foreshadowing).
Like in New Orleans, we add a twist to this demo and prick the taped water balloon over someone's head. There were no other adults in the room beside myself, the teacher, and Susie; the wonderful, petite sweetheart who has spent her career reaching out to children in need, and who came to see me do my show. I asked her to come sit in front of the students and be my next victim. The anticiapation was evident in the kids faces as I brought the balloon above her head. They believed, based on what they had already seen, that the balloon would pop and spill water all over poor, petite Susie. And despite the fact that I could not get the balloons with no tape on them to pop moments earlier, that is exactly what happened.
In my memory, I remember hearing the scream before I felt the emptiness in my hand. About 20 ounces of water gushed down Susie's back and she understandably cried out in shock. The floor was soaked, and if I'd been embarrassed in front of the first group of teachers it was nothing compared to feeling I had looking at the confounded teacher.I struggled to recover, but there's really no easy to way to explain to 3rd graders what was supposed to happen vs. what just happened.
("I like when calla pop the balloon on the girl because it got us wet.")
The vast majority of them chose to make their drawings about this whole debacle. Then they asked me to autograph their drawings, and a few gave me hugs. I know enough not to read too much into kid stuff like that, but I gathered at least that they liked it. They were paying attention, they were entertained and they were impressed. As I fumbled around, cleaning up the area and trying to apologize to the teacher, Susie and I eventually slipped out of the classroom.
Any dream I had of touching off avalanches of greatness were gone, but not because of what went wrong. Working with those kids humbled me more than I could have expected. I saw how incredible, intelligent and complicated each on of them was, despite how young they were and how hard their lives had been. How could I ever dream of so easily impacting such amazing little beings?
As Susie and I walked away from the school, her shirt still wet underneath her coat, she looked through the drawings we took with us. I could not believe what a good mood she was in. She asked me if I'd ever considered writing childrens science books, which I honestly hadn't. It was Susie's first physics demo show and she got balloon full of water down her back, but here she was marveling at these drawings and talking to me about possibilities for getting these ideas out to more kids. We hugged as we went our separate ways, and I apologized again for the mistake, but she genuinely seemed to have put it out of her mind.
Many people can recall single instances or events which they feel deeply influenced or even "triggered" their path in life. But I think most people also recognize that there are likely a long series of events that lead us to where we are, and those events may or may not reveal themselves in our memories. I won't ever take credit for "triggering" any young scientists single handedly, but I will give myself credit for contributing to a series of events leading up to a change. And it feels just as incredible to be a part of the many events that have a positive influence on a kid as it did to dream of being a "trigger." I don't need to be the crux of change or the leader of men to contribute to something great. Ultimately, my contribution is neccessary and essential, in the way that every drop in a bucket is essential. You can lose a few and still have a bucket, but if the drops all decide that they aren't important and stay home, well then we would have an empty bucket. So I keep doing demos and I don't get down on myself when I pop a water balloon on someone.