As amateur astronomers are wont to do, I spend quite a bit of time doing ‘outreach’ projects in my “spare” time. On November 24th I visited the 5th-grade GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) classroom at Rucker Elementary School in Gilroy CA. Here, a bit belated, is my report.
I’ve been doing this for 3 years now, and you’d think I’d be a bit less nervous. I mean, they’re a bunch of 5th graders, right? Are you smarter than a 5th grader? Are you sure? Because these aren’t ordinary 5th graders. These are GATE students, and they’re probably as smart, or smarter, than I am. I’m continually amazed by my GATE-identified daughter (now in 7th grade).
I have a PowerPoint I’ve been using and tuning for the last 3 years. It has evolved along the lines of what the kids found to be ‘cool’, judging by the ‘oh wow’ moments. Stuff like how dense white dwarf material is ( 106 grams (1 tonne) per cubic centimeter) which of course introduces lots of other related topics: scientific notation, the life cycle of stars, what makes a white dwarf, a neutron star, a black hole, etc.
I gave my standard presentation (I’m working on publishing it to flash with narration) and then I ran a powerpoint published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and set to the song “Shoulders of Giants” by Astrocapella. ( You can download the powerpoint here. By the way, the ‘low resolution’ version is just fine for most computer displays or projectors ).
I think some of the kids found the music to be a bit hokey, but Ms. Hennessy said “The hokey-er, the better”.
The Q&A focused (as it always does) on the weird or attention-grabbing aspects of the presentation. “What would happen to you if you fell into a black hole?”, “What will happen to the Earth when the sun turns into a red giant?”, “Which would kill you faster, a gunshot to the head or a supernova?”. There were some really good ones too: “How do we know how far away other galaxies are?”. That led into a good 2-3 minute explanation of parallax and standard candles. I’m going to have to work that into the powerpoint now.
The thing I feel is missing from my presentation is an activity, and I’m thinking of doing one on distances. I’ve done one like this before, at a presentation at Fremont Peak. I used simple scale-sized cut-outs for the earth and moon, and had the kids try to guess how far apart they should be (the answer was about 12 feet, way further than they guessed). Worked like a champ, maybe I’ll do that next time.
I’m trying to get my ‘outreach foot’ in the door at another local school as well. I’ll let you know how that goes.