Ray Garcia had to stay after school, but not to clean blackboards. Garcia is an engineer at JPL who returned to his grade school, Albion Elementary in Los Angeles, 44 years after he left, to involve students in a balloon rocketry experiment. The December 2001 visit was part of a collaboration between JPL and the Los Angeles Unified School District's after school enrichment program, LA's Better Educated Students for Tomorrow, or Best. Created in 1988, LA's Best is a nationally recognized model that now serves over 17,500 students in 101 elementary schools.
For about a half dozen years, JPL employees have been volunteering to bring space and science to L.A. classrooms. Two years ago, the union expanded with the launch of JPL Daze at LA's Best. The program begins with an orientation and training session for JPL employees who, like Garcia, then go out en masse to local L.A. Unified schools.
To demonstrate the trial and error nature of the scientific method, Garcia, a thermal engineer, engaged the children at Albion in an entertaining and informative experiment. Students ultimately determined which balloon size traveled the farthest using their own breath, yardsticks and Garcia's laptop computer. After choosing a round or oblong balloon, children inflated them, held them up and then let go. After following the sometimes-winding path of the balloons, students measured that distance and entered it into the computer.
To balance the left-brain activity, Garcia threw in a bit of entertainment. In the spirit of the holiday season, he donned an elf hat, grabbed his guitar and encouraged the children to join him in song.
Garcia, whose brothers and sister also attended Albion decades ago, feels it is important to provide role models to young students.
"It makes students aware of what they can expect in their future," Garcia said. "I want to motivate, I just want to give them a little hope."
Yvonne Garcia (no relation to Ray Garcia), LA's Best site coordinator for Griffin Elementary, saw her students' eyes light up when the model of 1997's Mars Pathfinder rover, Sojourner, took center stage in their school cafeteria.
"Kids are just generally enthused about space," Yvonne Garcia said. "After seeing the rover and video animation, they wanted to know what else goes on at JPL and if they can come visit."
A JPL electronic publisher, Susan Braunheim-Kalogerakos, brought 3-D glasses to Griffin Elementary so students could experience the stereo images that Sojourner sent back from Mars. When she asked who wanted to see the images, every hand went up, including those of the on-site staff.
Galileo project manager, Dr. Eilene Theilig really got her hands dirty with students from First Street School. To teach them about volcanoes on Io, one of Jupiter's moons, she brought along flour, water and food coloring. In order to demonstrate the viscosity of lava flow, each group of students mixed different amounts of flour and water. Students observed that thin mixtures flowed farther and thick mixtures piled up, hindering flow.
"The kids got to learn about a different world and really think about it," said Theilig. "They were really curious and excited by the topic. They were sharing their experiences with volcanoes on Earth."
JPL research scientist Dr. Robert Treuhaft has visited three schools to give students an introduction to Einstein's theory of special relativity. He conducted a thought experiment, urging the children to ponder the question, "how do you know you are moving?"
Treuhaft wanted to get the students thinking the way physicists think. He told them to imagine that they were moving down the highway in a truck with no windows at 55 miles per hour. He then asked how they would prove they are moving. After eliminating options like the sound of the motor (Treuhaft told them to imagine it was a "soundless" motor), students ultimately concluded that you don't really know you are moving unless you see something or someone else moving.
"It was a challenge for them but more than half of each class said they could go and explain it to others," Treuhaft said. "They were very inquisitive and excited; I wish the discussions at some science conferences were that enthusiastic."
Linda Long, Director of education for LA's Best, is excited about her organization's partnership with JPL and the feeling is mutual.
"LA's Best has had an extremely successful relationship with JPL," Long said. "JPL employees have taken an active role in our science program and we are definitely going to continue the collaboration."
Most JPL employees who participated in JPL Daze at LA's Best plan to visit schools again. Ray Garcia is already planning a new experiment and has his eye on the piano in the corner of the auditorium for an encore holiday performance. As Treuhaft reminds us, "we can not just be here. It is our responsibility to do this. It is the best chance we have at changing the world and the schools are just a few miles away. There's no reason not to do this."
For more information on JPL Daze, contact Richard Shope, JPL Daze and Europa Outreach Coordinator. For more information about LA's Best, visit their web site at http://www.lasbest.org.