My husband and I just returned from a short trip to Vegas to visit my mother-in-law, sister- and brother-in-law and their kids. They have a 15-year-old son, along with 11-year old quadruplet sons, and two other (grown) children. I thought that my role during this trip would be largely typical, family visiting in nature – hanging out, playing games, watching TV. And for the most part I was right. However, something unexpected happened while I was there that changed the way I think about the informal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning that a lot of scientists talk about (I certainly do).
At the last minute before we got in the car to drive to Vegas I threw some pretty brochures that I’d picked up during a recent visit to the Space Telescope Science Institute (the folks who operate and manage the Hubble Space Telescope) in my bag. I figure kids usually like pretty pictures, and it dawned on me that, seeing as I am in the process of developing an interactive astronomy workshop for young middle-school girls from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the sciences as part of my NSF postdoctoral fellowship, my nephews fit that target audience (except they’re male).
But it wasn’t the pretty picture brochures that got their attention. Our visit just happened to coincide with the Geminid meteor shower. I had spent a good part of the day hearing the boys talk about NBA players, football stats, and Xbox games. I thought to myself “if I can get these boys to go outside and look up at the sky, and if there is actually something to see from our location in a suburb of Vegas 20 minutes away, it might really be something special.”
While the kids played poker with my husband, I stepped outside of their house, and walked this way and that, trying to find the best viewing angle that was the least obstructed by the glare of the nearby street light. As I stood by the garage (turned out to be the best view, as a tree semi-blocked out the street lamp), I began to see meteors – bright streaks of debris coming off of asteroid/”rock comet” 3200 Phaethon that Earth was passing through while the asteroid came very close to the Sun. I waited until I’d seen at least five meteors, and then I went back into the house and told everybody that I was watching the meteor shower outside, and it was hitting its peak. Long story short, with some great (and pivotal) encouragement from their parents (so important!), the boys and adults put on parkas, hats and gloves and we piled into three cars and headed to the base of a big hill in a dark area nearby where we could get a better look. I was nervous. I didn’t want to get all the way out there and have the kids look up, see nothing, and think “Boring.” I felt like I held the power to spark or snuff out their interest in astronomy that very night.
Well, after a few minutes of looking up to get our bearings, and me pointing out a few constellations in the sky, we began to see meteors. The boys went wild. “OH MY GOD! I JUST SAW ONE! OOH, THERE’S ANOTHER ONE! WOW!!”
I was so happy and proud. Sure, maybe the next day they went back to looking only at TV and video games. But maybe they did that with the deeper understanding now that there’s a lot more out there than they are used to thinking about on a daily basis. What I realized is that no pretty brochure or amount of telling can replace the experience of getting a kid outside in the brisk night air and getting them to look up at the sky. Suddenly their world opens up. And it’s them that did it. I just asked them to shift the position of their head.
If you have children, nieces, nephews, then informal learning in astronomy and other STEM disciplines can start with them. Just try to make a difference there. Present a new perspective. Use them as a a test bed for what you’re trying to do out in the world. If it works on them, then that’s a good sign that you’re doing something that will work elsewhere with a broader audience. Then let it go, and let them go back to their regular lives. Maybe they’ll ask you to show them more things. Then you’ll know you got through. If I don’t achieve another thing this year, that’s alright. I got my nephews to unplug for a few moments and be part of something much bigger than their tiny corner of this world. That’s accomplishment enough for me.