Friday, June 03, 2011


Class, We Have a Guest...

This was Career Week at TB and TG’s school. Parents and other adults came in and talk to the students about their careers.

I hadn’t done Career Week in previous years. I just couldn’t figure out how to explain my job to grade schoolers. “Kids, do you know what a rubric is?” “Kids, let’s talk budget cuts!” Academic administration lacks the kid appeal of, say, firefighting.

I was set to skip it again this year when TW discovered that last year’s participating parents were a truck driver, a postman, a stay-at-home Mom, and a tattoo artist. Those are all honest ways to make a living, but it would be nice to show some examples of jobs that require college. So I reluctantly agreed.

I invited my friend, High School Friend on Right Ocean, to join me. He’s a professor of chemical engineering at a prominent university, and he was game.

The first shock was just how polite and welcoming the kids were. On the job, I’m used to crowds exuding a volatile mix of boredom and contempt. These kids had none of that. They were curious, attentive, and endearingly earnest.

I told them how I use reading and math on my job, and how the college employs people doing all sorts of different things. But the part that seemed to click for them was when I told them that my job involves getting grownups to play nicely with each other and share their toys. They seemed shocked that grownups would need that. I told them that if they could learn to play well with others now, they’d be in good shape. Then I mentioned that my job involves helping teachers do their best work, so to illustrate that, I introduced my friend the professor.

HSFRO knocked it out of the park. He had much better props, which is where scientists always have an advantage. He brought rubber balls that looked alike but bounced very differently, which let him talk about how different chemicals behave. He plugged reading and math -- reading different journals and doing equations to figure out how different chemicals are likely to behave, so they can make adjustments to get balls to bounce the way they want them to.

The highlight was the hair gel. He brought a pyrex bowl, which he placed on the overhead projector, and he put a dollop of hair gel in the bowl. It showed up on the whiteboard as a splotch. He outlined the splotch with a marker, and then started talking about chemical reactions. He mentioned that hair gel is supposed to hold hair in place -- one first-grader with a Mohawk seconded him on that -- and then asked if any of them had ever tasted ocean water. Most had, and they knew it was salty. He trotted out the classic lab science line -- “watch this!” -- and put some salt on the hair gel. It immediately liquefied and overflowed the perimeter outlined on the board. That got “oohs” and “aahs.” He explained the science behind it, and suggested that knowing the science would help you understand why hair gel doesn’t work in salt water.

The kids were fascinated, engaged, and eager to participate. (When HSFRO asked for volunteers to bounce the balls, every kid in class did a stiff-armed hand-raise. He commented later that that never happens at the university.) They already knew that engineers come in many varieties, and were able to name mechanical, material, agricultural, civil, and electrical. (At their age, I thought an engineer was someone who drove a train.) A few of them wanted to know how to become chemical engineers, which struck me as a great question for a first-grader to ask.

I don’t think that anything we covered will show up on the statewide exam they have to take to satisfy No Child Left Behind. But I can’t help but think that getting first and fourth graders excited about chemical engineering has to be good. And it did my heart good to see such inquisitive, engaged, endearing children surrounding TB and TG. We’ll come back anytime.

What a beautiful post! You captured the feeling of being in the classroom with those kids. Love the "stiff-armed hand-raise" -- that brought back memories of elementary school. What a great story you shared today! You never know what a difference you may have made in a child's life through your honest and accessible presentation!
I'm generally a cynic when it comes to children -- which is, I suppose, why I'm aiming to teach young adults instead. But it's hard to be cynical after reading a post like this. It gives me hope for the future of the human race. Thanks for that.
Physicists and geologists also tend to have really good toys to show off. Not English professors, alas. :(
I've also been wondering what I could do as a social scientist (and not the kind that can make people do funky psychological tricks). The teaching and training part I can explain, but the research part, "I sit in front of a computer screen and run regressions."

In my volunteer experiences, kids have that desire to learn beaten out of them starting around 5th grade. K-4 is a joy. I like 4th graders the best because they have better memories and are still eager.
Sure, the engineering toys were a hit and educational, but give yourself some credit DD. You could've done much worse: "Kids, I'm going to teach you what an academic appeal is, and how to do it!"

Seriously though, I wish there were wayy more of these presentation in all levels of elementary and secondary school.
Props for an English prof - let's see. You could bring in a princess hat, a toy space ship and a giant chocolate bar. What do all of these things have in common? They are part of a great story! Bring in a giant stack of books and tell them that these are all the books you get to read in a couple of months. You love reading - and you've practiced so much that you're fast and it's fun! You could tell kids that all scholars ask questions and the ones you ask are about stories. Why are people telling this story at this time in history? What does the story mean to the author and what does it mean to you now? How do people use this story to understand their lives? Part of learning so much about stories is that you also learn how to help people tell their own story by helping them write well and express themselves. What you do is all about helping people use their imagination and write the stories that are hidden inside each of us. Then hand out little chocolate bars and challenge the kids to think about their story and how they will write it - you'll be a hit.
Just delightful. Thanks muchly for sharing, nice way to end the week.
Several months ago, we had a STEM night for middle school students at the local mall. My public non-trad univ attended because our facility is next door. It amazed me the number of kids (6th, 7th, and 8th) who knew specifically what they wanted to be. Chemical engingeer. Geophysicist. Crazy. In 7th grade I wanted to be a registrar. Thanks mom.
The control experiment -- hair gel in the same pyrex but without salt on it -- worked fairly well, though the unaltered gel also started spreading out just a little bit. I think the heat from the projector lamp was warming it up and decreasing the viscosity. (That's "makes it flow a little" to the excited-volunteers crowd.)

One of many web pages that describes the hair gel experiment is here.

TB, TG, and their young colleagues all had great questions. The teacher beamed when I mentioned off-the-cuff that most math problems that arise in my field are word problems. I chose not to tell the entire class that word problems make my sophomores groan also.
Love this post!

My husband and I are in a salsa band and we recently visited a local elementary school. The kids were great!!! Lots of "stiff armed hand raises" when we asked for volunteers, haha!
Great story. The preponderance of evidence is that No Child Left Behind crowds out the enthusiasm, and the learning.
It is a fact that children have heard about many interesting careers, particularly through television programs like Mythbusters and Modern Marvels. What they often don't grasp is the importance of mathematics and reading (word problems = critical reading) to those careers.

HSF sees the ones who got enough math in high school. One of the missions and challenges at a CC is to teach that math to kids who have the interest and inclination to be an engineer but grew to dislike math sometime in 5th to 7th grade.
By some blog-world miracle, what nicoleandmaggie wrote is reflected in the first part of today's xkcd cartoon:
XKCD speaks truth! Especially the mouseover.
Very fun! And all that enthusiasm describes why I love that I made the shift from college teaching to middle school (mostly--I do high school, too.) Contrary to xkcd, I find most of my students--who range from 11-18--pretty engaged and still able to ooh and ahh over stuff.
In a somewhat to the point post over at Eli's place, one of the commenters had this to say in praise of high school English teachers
My mother was a public shool teacher (high school) for 33 years. Once, while visiting my old hometown, I went for a drive, and happened to be exceeding the speed limit. I was stopped by a police officer. When he saw me through the open window of my car, he said "I know you! I went to high school with you. I had your mom for English class."

Then he said (this is a quote, not a paraphrase), "If it weren't for your mom, I wouldn't be on this side of the badge -- I'd be in Raiford prison today."
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