I ran the same session four times. I opened with a short talk about me and how I came to be a scientist, which took five to ten minutes depending on the number of questions they asked me. I passed around my thesis for them to flip through and look at the figures while I talked. Then I gave a talk about my research, titled "Measuring magnetic fields in space", and tried to keep them engaged by asking questions from the very beginning, e.g. Saturn is the __ planet from the Sun. I passed around a single-axis magnetometer for them to play with so they could find the direction of the magnetic field - not just north, but also the way the field is oriented with respect to the ground. For the most part, it worked.
The first period, from 9:00-9:50 AM, was spent with about twenty Year 10 students (age 14) in their science class. They were the best group I spent a full period with - polite, but completely engaged with the subject. I started off immediately by telling them they could call out answers, a permission I had to revoke a bit later because one overly keen and very bright boy kept trying to answer every time. Gradually, the other students got engaged and began answering too. I was surprised at how much they knew. For instance, I asked them if they'd heard of Enceladus, and about half of them had, and knew that it was a source of interest because of the speculation that it could support life. Lots of them knew how long sunlight takes to get to the Earth (about 8 minutes) and the Sun-Earth distance (150 million kilometres) off the tops of their heads.
The second period, from 10:00-10:50 AM, was also with twenty Year 10 students in their science class. They weren't a bad group, and the group of girls at the back of the class were enraptured and very brave about calling out answers and questions over the eager boys at the front. The only problem with this class was actually the teacher. The first teacher just got out of the way and let me do my thing, only interrupting to dispense the occasional bit of discipline (an attribute which I came to value highly. More on this later). This teacher sat back with the students and watched my talk. He often gave answers when he should have let the students do so, and interrupted with distracting interjections. I tried not to let his presence disrupt my enjoyment of these bright kids, but it was difficult when he was essentially misbehaving.
I had a fifty minute break, which I spent in the staff room drinking copious amounts of water, reading a book about insects, and recovering.
One of the students from a Year 9 class came and got me to spend twenty minutes just talking to them about space research. They had to take a quiz, so I couldn't do my full spiel, but I have to say, I think this was among the more successful sessions. All I did was give a three minute introduction and then let them ask me whatever they wanted. A number of girls in this class were just as fearless as the boys, which was pretty fantastic to see. The girls in the older years, what few there were, generally hung back until about halfway into the session.
I ate lunch with the teachers in the staff room. It felt like I only had about five minutes.
The third session with the Year 11 students was the worst. They weren't awful, but as soon as they came in, I sensed their lack of interest in being there. They clearly didn't respect their teacher, who just as clearly disliked the lot of them and could not exercise all that much influence over them. As a result, I had to verbally chastise some of them in order to continue talking, because as soon as I started speaking, she sat down and stopped paying any attention to the class. It was unpleasant. They asked very few questions, and only a few of them gave answers. A boy at the front was being disruptive until I stared him down. Two girls behind him clearly wanted to offer answers and ask me questions, but they couldn't muster up the courage, given the atmosphere. I was very happy when they came up arm in arm after I'd finished to ask what they wanted to know about the spacecraft. They both had big blue earnest eyes and were quite smart. Too cute.
Fortunately, the fourth session with Year 11 students made up for the previous session. The students liked their teacher a lot, and they took to me straightaway. Two girls at the front led the class. They asked me all sorts of personal questions. My favourite was the one about high school in America - "Is it like Mean Girls?" Hahahaha YES. Anyway, they seemed to dig the magnetometer and they were keen to answer questions. It was the last class of the day, so they were easily distracted into starting tangential discussions, but I just let them do it because they seemed to enjoy it so much.
After school finished at 3:20, I spent a bit of time at Science Club with one of the technicians and a group of Year 7 students (age 10-11). They started out in a semicircle on stools around me, and within about ten minutes they were standing up, clustered around me, playing with the magnetometer and peppering me with questions almost without stopping to hear the answers. One boy waited patiently for a quiet moment, then came up and handed me a notebook in which he'd written a speech about space and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. It was a fine piece of rhetoric and I told him so. Their enthusiasm was adorable. I also observed a marked change in the technician, who'd been with me to help set up the a/v in each of the classrooms. He didn't seem comfortable with the older students, but with these younger ones, who clearly worshipped him as a fountain of knowledge and provider of fun experiments, he relaxed and came into his element.
I'm practically delirious from exhaustion, dehydration and joy. Also, hot chocolate. And I get to do it all again in two weeks.
ETA: Puzzling experience of the day - The only students who could work out what a magnetometer does without being told? The Year 7s in science club. Eh?