Starry Eyed


On Friday I fished something substantial out of my mailbox at school.  I regularly get marketing materials from companies eager to make some money off of students, be it through candy fundraisers or spendy summer symposia.  But this envelope was different.   The return address said Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I don’t think I had ever gotten anything directly from MIT before. 

Was MIT succumbing to the standard means to recruit students to their summer programs?  MIT, with an exemplary reputation for cutting-edge research, quality instruction, and creative entrepreneurism, has never seemed to lack in attracting the young, ambitious, academically-driven students at Monta Vista High School, where I teach.

Max was with me today, so I was motivated to open the envelope and share with him what was inside.  Max has learned a lot about education, from shadowing me for one hour each Monday and Friday morning, before his school begins, next door.

Inside was a padded maroon plaque sleeve, with white silk corners and a typed, signed, and watermarked letter.  What was this?

MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory was issuing me the Minor Planet “Debfrazier” (otherwise known as 30142).  No, this was no marketing stunt.  MIT had discovered the asteroid, so like the discoverers of foreign lands centuries before us, MIT was claiming it as their own and had named it in my honor.  They were doing all of this because last week one of my students, Natalie Ng, was awarded 5th place in the 2014 Intel Talent Search, a sort of Nobel Prize in applied science for high school seniors.

Natalie is amazing, and she has a lot to show for it.  Yes, there is an asteroid named Natalieng, as well.  And Intel gave her tens of thousands of dollars and an amazing week in Washington DC, where she enjoyed meeting accomplished people including 39 high school seniors doing groundbreaking science, and got to shake President Obama’s hand.  Natalie and I talk about her way of looking at the world, her science, and her ambitions a bit.  She’s a pretty normal person, humble and realistic, with a perspective perhaps 5 years older than her age.  She loves math, science, ice skating, and music.  Being a mentor to her has been a very nice way to get a glimpse into what I hope parenting might be like for me in ten years.

This week, Max completed his second science fair.  It was really neat to see his excitement and urgency about presenting at it.  Last year, Max was a bit shy and took a while to warm up to sharing his paper airplane project with others.  This year, two minutes late for the start of the fair, Max was anxious, making me deals like “I’ll meet you there,” when his sister was irritatingly slow getting out of the car.  Holly and I checked out the other exhibits, and checked up on Max often, but he was not eager to see us – he wanted to talk to other people visiting his poster, and show them what he had learned about homemade light bulb filaments.

There were less people at the science fair this year, than there were last year.  At Max’s fair, everyone gets a medal and certificate, and there are no judges.  Students do all of their research at home, and there is really only oversight from volunteers pointing out safety concerns on proposals (my job) and parents helping with research.  It’s a far cry from what Natalie does for her research; for the last several years, she has been working at research institutions, where there can be staff support for overseeing safety and a group of well trained colleagues can help advise about research.  But without a competitive edge to vie for, kids (or parents) are less inclined to enter the fair.

This same week, I interviewed for a summer position at Google.  Google, like so many lucrative technology companies in the area, works hard to give back through education.  In my interview, the team evaluating me wanted to know what I do or think could be done to engage parents as students learn, so students would be driven to keep learning or practicing, even after a formal class or program.

Based on my experience with Max and Natalie, what keeps them wanting to learn and do more is intrinsic.  They are both curious.  They want to create and experiment.  It’s fun, and it’s accessible.  A parent’s job is to facilitate that accessibility.

When I bring my kids outside to hike, backpack, or play, their engagement is nearly always instantaneous.  I don’t have to plead for them to run, find treasures, build, or invent a new game.  It just happens.  They ask me to come and play with them, so engagement is a two-way street.  I engage them, and they engage me.

Put Max or Holly in a library, and they move in self-directed ways.  They feel the shelves, take a book from the stacks, turn the pages, want me to join them in reading.

One of my favorite things to do with Natalie, is to ask her to help me to design fun things for my classes.  She begins hesitantly every time (she is a very humble person), but once I have laid out some major concepts or begun to describe a scenario, she dives in, with creative ideas of what can be done.  Likewise, the gears in her head are constantly spinning.  Natalie comes to me with questions about keeping microbes alive (she recently began creating a microbe-powered battery).  Max is already talking about what to research for his science fair next year.

Money and fame are not motivators, at least not for me, Natalie, Holly, or Max.  But fun, interest, and the ability to explore, fuels an engine that gets fired up when outdoors, in a library, or around their favorite science or art tools.

On Friday, we headed to see Holly’s first on-screen film.  “Mr. Peabody and Sherman rang true of plenty of classic values and roles of a parent and child.  It was a great to be treated to entertainment both parent and child could enjoy.  There were stars in the film aplenty – a nod to some important leaders and inventors in history, as well as some very famous voice actors.  I turned to watch my kids several times during the show, as they were grinning ear to ear at the full-screen experience.  Even with my own glowing asteroid millions of miles away near Ceres, my brightest stars are here at home.

– Debbie (Founder and President), Max (7), Holly (3), and Andrew

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