The director of science (DoS), a very organised and efficient blonde with the most remarkable accent, met me at her office. I don't know what this school did to acquire her (perhaps becoming an academy?) but they had best hang onto her with both fists. She looked after me better than people from much nicer schools have done.
The girls filed into the auditorium after I'd had ample time and space to set up my presentations and equipment, and been provided with tea and a jug of water. The first set, the Year 9s (about 14 years old), marched straight in and sat in the front row, smiling at me. The Year 10s and Year 11s wanted to be at the back, but the DoS firmly shepherded them forward. After just a few questions, I recognized that very few of them were near the necessary level of understanding for my talk, so I quickly dialed my speed down several notches and focused on getting them to keep giving me answers, praising them for doing so even when they weren't correct. I skipped a couple of slides showing magnetometer data that were going to be too hard.
An adorable little clump in the first row listened raptly throughout the talk, as did four Year 11s at the back. The talk felt like it took a lot longer than usual, partly because getting the right answers to my questions took time and partly because I could see that a few of the girls were bored and ill-bred enough to show it openly, despite the warning stare of the DoS. Perhaps I should have called them out on it, but I couldn't be bothered. If they didn't want to be inspired, they weren't going to be. The ones that were needed positive encouragement, not to hear their colleagues being shouted at to behave - too much like being in the classroom, I suspect.
We took a break and the little group of Year 9 girls pounced on me and peppered me with more questions, mostly quite personal ones about my life and a few about my work at NASA. I followed up the Cassini talk with a test run of my new theremin activity. This is a 10 minute talk about waves and wave mixing, followed by a chance to try to play tunes on a simple theremin that I'd brought.
What I didn't know beforehand is that waves aren't introduced until A-level physics. This is problematic because my intention with outreach is not to teach. Students may retain a fact or two from my talks but I can't override their teachers' authority by trying to introduce new concepts. None of these girls had finished their GCSEs yet. I tried my best to simplify my explanations. I told them that my speaking to them created waves that caused all the air molecules around them to vibrate and reach their ears to make the sound of my voice. They liked that. I explained constructive interference in this way: If you cloned me and I started saying exactly the same thing I'm saying now at the same time, you would hear me except I'd be even louder. That went down well too. I stumbled over destructive interference, as I couldn't immediately come up with a hand-waving explanation on the fly. They seemed to be okay with the idea that interference made sounds go up or down or become louder or softer. Beat frequencies proved to be hopeless, so I skipped the topic entirely.
This talk needs work. There simply aren't enough explanations in it. The students seemed to grasp the idea of frequency and amplitude at the end when I played them pure sine tones, then a linear sweep and finally a recording of the theremin, so I think perhaps I need to use more sound recordings in my talk.
All this confusion was forgotten as soon as I encouraged the girls to come up and play the theremin themselves. A couple of braver ones had a go, but though I could tell they wanted to, the others refused to be tempted.
At this point I had a brainwave. I simply turned my back on the theremin and started chatting with the DoS. A big group of girls suddenly shot towards it and clustered around it, trying out different distances and motions of their hands to create sounds.
Finally, I handed out the Saturn lithographs I'd brought with me. On hearing that they came from NASA, even the more disaffected ones got excited. The DoS took some photos of me with the Year 9 girls. Some of them lingered to play the theremin a bit more.
Despite this, I was inclined to feel rather down about the experience, until three of the Year 9 girls crept up to me. They offered me their ambitions as if they were precious secrets. "I want to be like you," the small one with the big dark eyes said. "I want to be a botanist and to make medicines out of plants." "That's excellent," I said. She sidled closer, and as she put out her arm, I suddenly realized she was angling for a hug. I put my arm around her and we bumped heads sideways. Her two friends (future brain surgeon, future astrobiologist - a freshly formed ambition after my talk) followed suit.
It made the whole event worthwhile just to have reached those sweet, ambitious, underprivileged girls.
I am always slightly at a loss when I have to respond to students telling me their ambitions. I feel lame just saying, "That's great!" even though I mean it. Should I be doing more? I figure I shouldn't launch into a spiel about how to attain their goals, but I would like to encourage them to perform all the steps they need to do to get there (e.g. continuing to take science courses and applying to university). Should I say that, or is it enough to smile and be enthusiastic? Obviously I can't offer the long-term assistance that they need, being someone who comes in from the outside for the day, but perhaps I should encourage them to ask for support.