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Splash. Was. Awesome. by Anna H. '14

I taught: 3 classes, 5 sections, 246 kids.

November 21, 2012

I love everything about Splash.

I love waking up at 8am on a Saturday and bouncing out of bed. I love wearing headphones in a hipster coffee shop, sipping an Earl Grey/white chocolate infusion and putting the finishing touches on my PowerPoint slides.

I love walking back to campus, and squeezing past thousands – THOUSANDS – of middle- and high-school kids and their parents in the Infinite Corridor – the former are bouncy and the latter are a little stressed out. They are all wide-eyed as they try to figure out where the heck they’re going. Our hallways aren’t the easiest to navigate, so volunteers stand every few dozen feet wearing fedoras and holding signs.

I love slipping out of the human river and into the Bush Room, for teacher registration. To be fair, it’s no less chaotic in here, but the conversation snippets are fun to listen to. “Dude, you’re teaching THAT to MIDDLE SCHOOLERS?” and “how’d swing dancing go?” and “food coming through!” and “ahh, I wish I could take your class!”

I love the free t-shirt. My current collection: three Splash shirts, two Spark shirts, one HSSP shirt, one Firestorm shirt. This one is my favorite. It’s the first purple shirt I own, which is weird, since I like purple.

The teacher lunch is okay. There isn’t much pizza left by the time I arrive, unfortunately, and the remaining slices are covered in Balsamic vinaigrette. I’m not a huge fan of salad dressing in general, and DEFINITELY not a huge fan of salad dressing on pizza. That said, I’ve recently been broadening my pizza horizons – I used to be a strictly mozzarella, or mozzarella and pepperoni and/or mushrooms, or Hawaiian, kind of girl, but have taken to enjoying butternut squash/blue cheese/candied walnut pizza and barbecue chicken pizza as well.

I sign in, shove a bread roll in my mouth, and elbow my way through the hall and up the stairs to my first classroom.

I LOVE arriving early, and seeing the number of kids waiting for my class: a dozen, maybe, or more. People want to learn about what I want to teach! Perfect.

I love that the classroom fills up. 40 kids, for my one-hour Introduction to Pulsars class. I ask who thinks he/she traveled the furthest to get to Splash. 7-8 hands go up. A girl says she’s from Ottawa, and 5 of those hands go down. Another kid is from Wyoming. Yet another is from Boulder, Colorado: he wins. I realize that these 2900 (we got 2900!) kids are traveling to MIT from all around the country, just to hear MIT students teach about subjects they love.

Before I start talking about pulsars, I make a deal with the class. They are not allowed to be shy about raising their hands and asking questions – and, in return, I pledge to answer every single question. I hand out notecards, so that they can give me whatever questions remain at the end of class – I will type up answers and e-mail them, I promise. They gasp and look thrilled when I say that I am going to do that.

I LOVE MY STUDENTS. They fill an awkwardly-shaped classroom, but even the ones at the back sit up straight and lean forward to listen to me. They raise their hands, don’t shout out, and aren’t disrespectful of each other or me. They laugh at my bad jokes and ask wonderful questions.

This is my first time teaching a Splash class on my research, since I only started work on pulsars over the summer. I get a high off of teaching about something that I am knowledgeable about. When students ask me questions, I know enough that I either know the answer off the top of my head or can make an educated guess – and the best part is that I can accompany it with a story from my summer internship. I show a picture of the pulsar I discovered, and they all freak out.

At the end of class, I collect the notecards; they say things like “you’re a great teacher!” and “keep up the great work!” and “you have so much energy – I can tell you really love the subject” and ask questions like “what resources would you recommend if I want to do more search on pulsars?” and “are there any Citizen Science programs to help look for pulsars?”

Another notecard reads: “I wish we could have gone into pulsars in more depth.” When I e-mail the kids my answers, I write: “Me too.”

I book it to my next class: “Topics in Modern Physics,” 48 kids. Different kids, with one or two exceptions. I wave at the familiar faces – they smile back – and I sit through friends’ talks on relativity and the 2011 Nobel Prize before giving a 7-minute presentation on pulsars. I pass off the baton to another friend, who talks about exoplanets, and then another, who talks about the the LHC.

Done for the day. That night, my friend Megan sleeps over. She’s visiting from Yale because of the Harvard-Yale football game (which MIT has won, by the way.) She’s a Middle East Studies major – the ONLY Middle East Studies major in her year – and spent a summer in Morocco to improve her Arabic.

That’s so cool. I want to learn Arabic. I want to learn about Islam. I ask her for a lesson. We get drinks, snacks, and sit on the mattress-top I put on the floor for her. She teaches me about the history of Islam and I pick her brains.

Suggestion: get everyone you know to teach you about their favorite topic or hobby. It’s so much more efficient – and more enjoyable, in my opinion – than ploughing through a textbook.

The next morning, we roll out of our respective beds at 8:30; we had a late night. I walk her to the train station, and return to the coffee shop to make the finishing touches on my Introduction to Radio Astronomy PowerPoint. I’m more nervous about this one; I don’t know the topic as well as I do pulsars.

Fortunately for my nerves, my first class of the day is on pulsars. 11am, and 25 kids this time. They ask questions and send me on this tangent and that tangent, and by the end I feel like they must know as much about pulsars as I do. Afterwards, I hang out with a few of them and discuss majoring in physics at MIT. I realize that I’m already a junior in college and must seem very old to these high schoolers.

At about noon, I process what is coming. 100 middle school kids are registered for my afternoon Introduction to Radio Astronomy class. A hundred. I’ve never taught Middle School kids for Splash. They might be disruptive, and I don’t know how to keep 100 kids in line. They might find radio astronomy boring. They might find me boring. I have a minor panic meltdown, and my friend Sam texts me saying he will sit in on the class and smile at me from the audience. He’s awesome.

At 3:05pm, the class begins. I make the same deal with them as I made with my high schoolers, and give each a notecard. Sam tells me later that the kids around him were ooh-ing and ahh-ing at all the awesome space pictures on my title slide.

It’s a big room. There are a lot of kids. But standing up on that platform, I feel totally at-ease. That’s what happens when I teach; I’m frantic right up until I start talking, and then I’m confident.

And the kids LOVE radio astronomy. They love the pictures, they love space, they want to know more about black holes and the cosmic microwave background and whether anyone has died from exposure to radio waves*. I show them a picture of myself climbing in a radio dish of the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Occasionally, they get a little chatty, but all it takes to silence them is a brief “hey, guys, sorry – I don’t mind you talking, but unfortunately since we’re a big class that means I can’t hear your classmates when they ask questions. shhhhh.”

*Ummm. Not…that I’m aware of?

I collect notecards at the end.One girl writes, “Tell more personal experiences! Like when you climbed that dish over the summer.” Another asks what Hz stands for, and I feel guilty for not explaining that in my talk.

Last class of the day: another radio astronomy class, for 33 middle schoolers. For many of them, it’s their last Splash class of the entire weekend. By the end, I am addressing each question-asker by name, which seems to thrill them. One kid goes by “hat man.” They also write nice feedback on their notecards – and continue to ask wonderful questions.

And then I go home, take off my teacher badge, and suddenly Splash is over. They weren’t shy, they picked my brain with questions. They fulfilled their end of the deal. I e-mail out all the answers to all their questions, fulfilling my end of the deal. The next day, I get an e-mail back from a parent, saying that her middle school son “can not stop raving” about the radio astronomy class; she wants to know if I can teach him about radio astronomy in more detail, one-on-one. I feel bad, and tell her that I can’t do that. Then, a middle school girl e-mails me, addressing me as “Miss Anna” (AWWWW!), and explaining that she is homeschooled and wants more resources to learn about radio astronomy. I realize that there really isn’t a whole lot out there for kids to learn about radio astronomy – most of the websites I find are pretty complicated. I think about how that can be fixed.

She wants to know about my interest in radio astronomy, the class I took in high school, and my career plans. I tell her that before the summer I wanted to be a brain doctor, and now I want to be an astrophysicist. I tell her that I’m so glad to hear that she’s interested in science and astronomy – and I am.

I realize that these kids don’t just come for the classes – they come to take classes from us, specifically. From MIT kids! Smart, scientist big-kids, who can give them life advice. They see us as role models – and all we have to do is talk about a topic we like.

Woah.

That night, I sit down at my computer, and start planning what classes I’m going to teach for Spark and HSSP in the spring. Right now, my friend Eric and I are planning to co-teach an HSSP class called “eight calculations that changed science” or “eight calculations that everyone should do / learn about at least once in their lives” or something like that. Ideas include: calculating the expansion rate of the universe, demonstrating the necessity of special relativity when dealing with incident cosmic ray muons, using Maxwell’s equations to show that light travels at c, something to do with the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.

If you have ideas, let me know! The kids will appreciate it.