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.