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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Big Questions and Small Scientists by Anna H. '14

The kids I volunteer with are magical.

I was five years old the first time someone accused me of witchcraft.

I was taking a bath (not really sure why this detail sticks in mind) and it was close to Halloween: my birthday. My little sister poked her head in.

Lisa: Anna, does being born on Halloween mean that you’re a witch?
Me [exhibiting how to irresponsibly wield one’s older sibling powers]: Yes.
Me: Yes.
Lisa: Woah!
The second time someone accused me of witchcraft, I was a sophomore in High School, tutoring a seven-year-old a short bus ride away. One day, while I was explaining how to add double-digit numbers, she interrupted to ask whether I was Hermione Granger, from Harry Potter. Flattered, I tried to imagine that it was because of my towering intellect and spirit, and not the combination of bushy brown hair and big front teeth.
The third time was a little more peculiar. I was getting a tuberculosis skin test, which I needed in order to start volunteering at a local hospital.
Nurse: Birth date?
Me: 31 October, 1992.
Me: …yep.
Nurse: I KNEW you looked like a witch!
Me: …..
The fourth time was a couple of weeks ago, at the elementary school where I volunteer on Tuesday afternoons. My partner and I were supposed to teach a group of kids (ages 6-8ish) about gases and liquids, using Alka Seltzer. I was disappointed by the first step in the lesson plan – it said to drop the tablets in the water, and watch them fizz, which I thought would go down in history as The Most Boring Demonstration Ever. Fire is cool. Rockets are cool. Kids don’t want to see fizzing water. They can drink soda for that. Feeling a little guilty for bringing such a lame demonstration, I filled up a film canister at the sink, and carried it over to the table. Silence fell as the tablet plopped into the water.
The fizzing began, and so did the chaos. I thought someone had broken a leg, because the kids started screaming. They grabbed my arms, and screamed. They leaned into my ears, and screamed. They jumped up and down and grabbed each other and tried to climb on the table. They hollared and howled and flapped their arms, screaming: “IT’S EXPLODING!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I glanced down. Foam bubbled feebly over the sides of the canister and formed a little puddle on the table. The kids continued to celebrate as though a rocket had been launched. “IT’S EXPLODING!!!!!” I was stunned. One kid sidled up next to me, and gazed up in awe through big round glasses. “Are you…” he began. “Are you…are you a wizard?”
Have you ever had a conversation with a child? If you haven’t, go find one. He or she will remind you how exciting the world can be, when you’re curious about everything and can see the magic in fizzing Alka Seltzer.
In High School, I tutored and babysat a second grader who told me that he was going to become king of the planet, so that he could force everyone to recycle. To encourage him do his math homework, we pretended that his pencil was a rocket and the pencil sharpener a refuelling station: when he did enough problems to run out of lead, he could navigate the pencil over to the sharpener, which I held high up in orbit. This kid also drew detailed diagrams of helicopters and told me that he was going to build robots “a thousand kilometers wide.” He had a beautiful imagination.
On Sundays, I volunteer on a pediatrics floor for infants and toddlers (what I needed that TB skin test for.) I disinfect toys and deliver movies and games to rooms, but more than anything I love playing with the kids.
These kids are not extraordinary. What’s extraordinary is that they manage to remain so ordinary. I’ve seen a baby giggling and babbling (as babies do) with my pinky in a vice grip – while being fed through a tube up her nose. I’ve seen a girl toddle into the playroom, and sit down at the table to paint some flowers – while connected to an enormous trolley of tubes and bags of liquid, which she wheeled in and parked next to her seat. One little boy cooked me an eight-course meal at the plastic stove; when I asked for dessert, he handed me a toy shark, and explained that the shark ate some Reese’s pieces, which were now in its stomach: by eating the shark I could eat the Reese’s too. Another boy grabbed my ID badge, and held it up to his ear, looking very serious. “Hello?” he said, into the ID badge. “Hello? Yes. Yes, thank you. Thank you. Good bye.” He hung up, and the ID-badge-phone flopped back against my chest. I had a fight with another kid over which of us was actually Iron Man. He won.
These kids at the hospital manage to remain as sparkly and creative as those at the elementary school, and the little boy I used to tutor. They remain children: they still see the world as a place where Iron Man exists and Alka Seltzer is magic and ID badges are phones and pencils are rocket ships. They’re sick and exhausted but they still want to get up and run around and play pretend and have adventures. I find that inspiring.
Has a child ever asked you a question? If not, maybe you’re unfamiliar with the fact that little kids ask wonderful questions – that they, in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s words (quoted recently by Emad), “are born scientists”. The Cambridge Science Festival runs an annual “Curiosity Challenge“, which accepts submissions from children who have some questions about how the world works. A woman who helps organize the festival (an MIT alum!) showed me the results while I chatted with her about volunteering opportunities, and I knew from Page 1 that I had to have that book. She let me keep it. Pictures of some (of the many!) submissions are below – I would post all of them, but I’m pretty sure that would break the Internet.

How does your brain use your eyebrows?

How many cells are in a panda?

I am curious about TVs. Are there little people inside when you’re watching? 

I wonder why junk food is made if it is unhealthy?

Aren’t these magical?

16 responses to “Big Questions and Small Scientists”

  1. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:

    kids own

    this post owns

  2. Saad Yousaf says:

    kid minds work in awesome ways!!!

  3. D says:

    I wonder whether Peter Pan will make a good scientist:)

  4. Francisco Martin says:

    Love your post!! I can relate so much. I’m a leader at my church’s Children’s group, Oasis, every Wednesday. It’s such a thrill and sometimes the best times is when we just talk. I’ve had kids draw mountains, saying that it was a morphing dragon (when travelers passed by, it would eat them), another drew a fart monster, that would engulf anyone near them (followed by a rendition of suffocation due to fart), and another dressed up as a dynamite (my small group is called the FireCrackers)!

    Anyways, awesome post! I hope someday to find time to take care of our future proffesionals, just like you do with kids.

  5. Abhishek says:

    Children are truly born asking the greatest of questions…

    Seconding Chris, this post owns.

  6. Hussein A. says:

    Wonderful post Anna!

    Honestly felt like I was reading my own biography–I was teased for being a wizard in 3rd grade after reading all the (at the time written) H. Potter books, I tutored elementary students in math in 10th grade, and currently volunteer in a hospital playroom and absolutely love playing with children and making them smile in all their circumstances. And I just got back from one of my shifts today, where I was cooked a spaghetti meal on the plastic stove by a little boy!

  7. Sudhanshu Kumar Chandra says:

    This post reminds me of the monotonous education system.
    It kills the ingenious creativity of child instead of cultivating it.

    Someone rightly said that our schooling must never interfere with our education.

    Anna, I like the way you exemplified the array of volunteering activities you are/were involved in.

  8. Emad T. '14 says:

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is now the most quoted astrophysicist on the MIT Admissions website

    Gosh I hope he comes around here some time to admire our handiwork

  9. Muna says:

    This is incredible!

    and I totally understand what you’re saying

    I’ve never felt more ignorant in my life, ever, than when I’m talking to a little girl/boy. i know that they know more than us… this knowledge of theirs cant be measured with tests and homework and GPAs.. it’s just there..

    *advice for later: if you ever want to find the meaning of life (or of any other question wandering about in your mind), ask a 10 year old… you’ll be surprised with what u hear

  10. Alex says:

    Astrophysicist?!?! I thought Neil deGrasse Tyson was a boxer!


  11. Shoyeb A. says:

    This is a great post!

    @Alex: haha Neil deGrasse is an astrophysicist not a boxer =P

  12. Jesse says:

    Very nice post- thanks for sharing!

  13. Samir says:

    Great post Anna !!

    Your Posts make beleive there exists so much Humanity at MIT

    Kids have a trillion neurons firing up where as Adults have just a 100 billion neurons turned on. MIT should research how Adults could use those neurons and think like Kids. The world would be certainly a better place, then.

  14. :D says:


    That’s a great suggestion. Kids to run the world maybe a better alternative to what we have at present. Adults bickering and countries in total grid lock.

  15. Brandon J. says:

    You know, this really reminds me of something I went to last week. Tulsa University (specifically one of the physics professors, Professor McCoy) hosts a “Physics Journal Club” every month, where they select a couple of scientific articles in advance, and a bunch of high school kids come and we discuss the articles, the scientific background, and just the general topic.

    ANYWAY, for December’s meetings, the specific topic was the possibility of ET life, with one of the articles for and one against. We got off on a tangent (happens, of course), talking about how the universe is expanding and how that expansion is actually accelerating, and someone asked why it was accelerating.

    There was this 11 year old kid there, and he thought that maybe it was because there were particles that were hitting the edges of the universe, providing the force to accelerate it – kind of like a balloon, or at least that was the analogy I made. I thought that was a really cool idea, even if it was wrong. (nothing on the edge to hit, kid…)

    Just kind of reminded me of that. The innocence and creativity of kids (even older ones like that) can be pretty interesting sometimes.

  16. Waleed Q. says:

    While reading this I continued to hear Hagrid’s famous line:

    “You’re a Wizard Harry.”

    Hilarious post.