Science Served Family Style

At Goddard Visitor Center, from left: Deborah Bustin; son Ian Morris, 11; education manager Emilie Drobnes; and Gopisankar Thaivalappil, 12.
At Goddard Visitor Center, from left: Deborah Bustin; son Ian Morris, 11; education manager Emilie Drobnes; and Gopisankar Thaivalappil, 12. (Photos By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Kathleen Seiler Neary
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 19, 2007

"Do we have intelligent life?" asks Diana Newman of Upper Marlboro.

"It's right here," says Kyle, her 11-year-old son, pointing to a small green stick figure drawn on poster board. The mini alien is surrounded by pompoms, yarn and balloons, which represent planets, comets and asteroids.

Kyle's father, Glenn, is also hunched over the model of the universe that the Newmans have created during Family Science Night at NASA's Goddard Visitor Center in Greenbelt. And at a dozen other round tables nearby, more adults and children are spending two hours tackling science-related tasks while learning from one another and NASA program leaders.

The goal of the monthly sessions, which continue through May, is to get kids in grades 6 through 8 -- and, just as important, their parents -- excited about science. (The next program, on Thursday, is titled "Have You Ever Seen the Invisible?," about electromagnetic waves.)

"We want to change their perception of science and scientists," says Emilie Drobnes, education and public outreach manager for NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Drobnes says she hopes Family Science Nights can be the spark that ignites a passion, with students seeking out advanced science classes and eventually careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Most family nights feature a NASA specialist in addition to two program leaders.

As an extracurricular activity, a night of thinking about the universe might face tough competition from sports, music lessons and homework. But for kids who attend, the family bonding aspect is something not normally found on the soccer field. Parental involvement is expected, and a role reversal might even take place.

"Sometimes the children are the teachers, and the parents ask the questions," Drobnes says. "We're changing the way they interact around science as a family."

Though the program is aimed at middle schoolers, other ages are welcome. The evenings are limited to about 15 families, or 60 participants total. To broaden community involvement, a free drop-in program, called Sunday Experiment, began this year. It's on the third Sunday of every month from 1 to 2 in the Goddard Visitor Center; the next session is Sunday. Kids will make pop rockets usin g film canisters and Alka-Seltzer, hovercraft using CDs, and paper helicopters.

But at Family Science Night, there's time to probe deeper. Families will play with detecting different kinds of light, make scale models of the solar system and explore the reasons for seasons.

Deborah Bustin of Greenbelt brought her son Ian Morris, 11, to all the sessions last school year, and the pair plans to continue. "This is how science should actually be taught," Bustin says. "Lots of hands-on experimenting."

Family Science Night Goddard Visitor Center, Explorer Drive, Greenbelt Contact:301-286-0207. Sign-up is available at http://sdoepo.gsfc.nasa.gov (click on "SDO for Families," then "Family Science Night"). Hours: From 6 to 8 Thursday, Oct. 25, Nov. 15, Dec. 20, Jan. 17, Feb. 21, March 20, April 17 and May 15 Admission: Free; registration required Family Science Night Goddard Visitor Center, Explorer Drive, Greenbelt Contact:301-286-0207. Sign-up is available at http://sdoepo.gsfc.nasa.gov (click on "SDO for Families," then "Family Science Night"). Hours: From 6 to 8 Thursday, Oct. 25, Nov. 15, Dec. 20, Jan. 17, Feb. 21, March 20, April 17 and May 15 Admission: Free; registration required


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