I went to my son's classroom last Friday to give a presentation on Mars. They have been doing a unit on space and the planets, and my wife volunteered me for it (I wasn't unwilling!). It was quite a good time. The night before I had spent far more time than I should have putting together a presentation. My wife had asked a friend if we could borrow their projector so I could attach it to my laptop. Powerpoint and I are friends, so when I found out that I could do it this way, my fears of standing in front of 40 wiggly 8-year-olds without visual aids went away (thanks, wife!).
In any case, as soon as I went to the classroom, the buzz started. The kids were wondering who I was -- some knew already and felt really cool about that. My wife joined me with my youngest son, who occasionally would punctuate what I was saying with sound effects ("The rovers on Mars move really slow" = "Vroom!").
I set up the computer and the overhead projector so it was lighting up the white board at the front of the classroom. As soon as I put it on, there was an audible "oooh!" since my desktop background is a computer rendered version of Gale Crater on Mars and is, to be frank, nothing short of spectacular.
I then started in, talking about the relative size of Mars compared to Earth. I spoke about it's lesser gravity, it's thinner atmosphere, and how cold it is. The kids were so fun as they kept asking questions -- lots of them! These kids are really interested in this stuff, and it's unfortunate that most of them will lose that curiosity to the ease of video games and loud television.
Friday, though, they were just eating up the knowledge. They were most curious about two things: is there water on Mars, and have we found any aliens. (Yes, lots of it; and, no, not yet.). I showed them some overhead pictures taken from my spacecraft and compared them to some of the pictures taken by the rovers. They loved being able to see both perspectives, and even though they don't know why that was exciting to see desert-scapes filled with rust-colored rocks and sand dunes, they enjoyed it just the same.
At the end, as expected, they asked if anybody has actually been to Mars, yet. I told them that if everything goes as scheduled (which it won't, I'm realistic enough to know that, even if I didn't tell the kids that) then we should be sending people to Mars in the 2020s, right when they hit their own 20s. My comment of, "You could be some of the first people on Mars!" was met with raucous excitement.
At the end, I asked them if they wanted to watch a video, and, of course, they were enthusiastic about that, too. I put on a bootleg copy of a video circulated internal to my work back in 2003 that is a computer-rendered animation of the launch, cruise, and surface mission of the rovers we have on Mars. It was a huge hit. (The highly unofficial use of Lenny Kravitz's "Fly Away" music overlaid on the launch of the rovers is always popular ...)
In any case, I'm somewhat of a celebrity among the kids now. At my oldest son's basketball game on Saturday, two of the parents of the kids who were in the room were telling me how they loved the talk, but most especially the video, of course. It's tough to upstage a video ... ;)
I'm glad I had the chance to go and do that. It's always nice to be able to share something about what I do and what I know about Mars. These kids are good kids, but often don't ever get challenged to think big about their future. I just hope that maybe I sparked something in some of those kids to do just that.