August 18, 2006
(Open with music.)
Narrator: How to Build a Rocket Scientist. I'm Jane Platt and you're listening to a podcast from JPL - NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. First of all, what exactly is a rocket scientist?
People on the street: A rocket scientist? Somebody who works on rockets, sends them to Mars and wherever. Someone who builds rockets as a hobby and for work. NASA. Um, just someone that's really smart. Somebody who is really bright and kinda out there, (laughter).
Narrator: It might surprise you to learn that there really is no such thing as a rocket scientist. There are rocket engineers, and there are scientists. But since everyone knows the term rocket scientist, we'll go ahead and use it generically. We're going to talk with a JPL rocket scientist, two student rocket scientists under construction, and we'll find out how JPL's education office can help parents and teachers build their own rocket scientists.
Pan Conrad: I loved science, but I didn't pursue science in school, because I thought I was too dumb to do it. I didn't like math, I wasn't good at math, I hated math, I cried when I had to take a math test.
Narrator: You would never guess those words are being spoken by Dr. Pan Conrad, the head of JPL's astrobiology unit. She calls it the science of everything to do with life in the universe. Scared of math and science, the little girl Pan studied music instead. She became an opera singer, joined a rock band, a country band, became a composer, then a video producer. But always gnawing inside of her - a love of science.
Conrad: So I went back to college and I just decided to gut it out, do the math, stop the crying and get a degree in science. And I picked geology because I just loved crystals and minerals and thinking about the stories that the Earth can tell us about itself. And in order to do space, I figured if I knew the planet I lived on really well, maybe somebody would let me study another one.
Narrator: At JPL, she not only studies other planets, she tries to figure out if anything could live there.
Conrad: I study what's called habitability, that is what makes some environments hospitable for life, and other environments not.
Narrator: And I'm catching you now, as we speak, literally you are packing for a trip, but it's not a typical summer vacation, it's actually work, and you are going where?
Conrad: (laughs) You've caught me with all these big rubber action packers on the floor of my office where I'm packing up for an expedition to the Arctic. And we're going do some really cool things there. We're going to test out a rover which can actually climb on the side of a cliff. And we're going to test out some fancy life detection instruments and see how well we can identify life when it's sparsely distributed in rocks and in soil.
Narrator: Conrad's Arctic team includes Ellen Haryu, a rocket scientist under construction. She's a University of Washington student, spending her fourth summer at JPL on a fellowship. How many other students can say that they're celebrating their 21st birthday in the Arctic? Ellen, like Pan Conrad, loved science as a young child.
Ellen Harju: Some of my earliest toys were a space shuttle, along with my Barbies and my cars, so I've always had an interest in space, probably because of my Dad's influence.
Narrator: Ellen followed her childhood interest, but Pan Conrad says many girls don't.
Conrad: A lot of girls don't go into science and technology because they're afraid they won't get a boyfriend. That is just ridiculous, because science rocks and brainy girls rule, and you'll still get a boyfriend, so don't worry about such silly things.
Narrator: But even lots of boys think rocket science is not for them.
Brian Schratz: I guess as a student you always hear about what NASA does and space missions, and you look up and see space and think about it, but it just seems like it's so far away or so out of reach, that how can you, just one student, or one kid, ever hope to have the cool job of actually building spacecraft and launching stuff.
Narrator: Brian Schratz, a Penn State grad, is also a rocket scientist under construction. He's at JPL this summer, working on a proposed Mars lander. He calls it a dream job, a surreal experience -- made possible by some good college training.
Schratz: I was fortunate enough to have exposure to programs that let me get a hands-on approach, move out of the classroom and actually into a lab and start building these things. Doing smaller sub-orbital rockets and then satellites and eventually making contacts in industry and eventually ending up at JPL.
Narrator: Advice for kids who want to become a rocket scientist -- from Brian and Ellen.
Schratz: Get your hands on a project, where you really have a chance to explore your passion, find something you really, really believe in, you really, really feel strongly about and just go for it and don't let anybody tell you you can't do it.
Harju: My advice would be when you get older and in school and you can choose your own classes, make sure you choose as many math and science classes as you can, and don't let anyone tell you you can't do what you want to do for whatever reason.
Narrator: Helping potential rocket scientists achieve their dreams -- NASA and JPL. David Seidel manages JPL's elementary and secondary education program.
David Seidel: I think most scientists and engineers will tell you that they were inspired in some way as relatively young kids. So the best way for kids to grow up to be rocket scientists is to learn about being rocket scientists when they're young. And the best place to do that is probably a museum or science center. Maybe visit of the NASA field centers, and get an idea of the kinds of things that we do and the kind of fun that we can have.
Narrator: And Seidel says computers make it so much easier than ever to learn and teach about space.
Seidel: We're very much interested in the next generation of scientists and engineers and also citizens. And so we create quite a bit of materials, mostly targeted towards teachers, but lots of materials that parents and students can also use.
Narrator: A couple of ways to get involved.
Seidel: We have a network of educator resource centers located around the country, but almost every educational product that NASA has produced is available online. And there's some good repositories of instructional materials that can be downloaded free of charge or can be ordered actually from a couple of different sources that can be printed at low cost.
Narrator: One of the most popular is an educator guide called Rockets.
Seidel: And the reason why that's cool is everybody likes rockets, they think they're cool in the first place. So there's things like straw rockets and bottle rockets, you can make a two-stage rocket using balloons. So the materials are not complicated, not expensive, and the activities are pretty straightforward and they're a lot of fun.
Narrator: For more info on NASA/JPL education offerings, go to www.nasa.gov and click on the links for students or educators. Or go to http://education.jpl.nasa.gov . Closing words of advice from Pan Conrad for budding rocket scientists out there.
Conrad: You don't have to be good in math, you just have to stick with it. You don't have to be especially smart. You don't even have to be especially talented. You just have to be especially curious and you have to be dedicated. You have to be a good observer. And anybody can be a scientist and anybody can be an explorer. So if I were talking to a parent, I would say, tell your kids they can do anything. Because ya' know what? If you say that, they might just do that.
Narrator: Thanks for listening to this podcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.