Physicist raises STEM awareness for Covina students

By RENEE HATCHER, China Lake Public Affairs Office

Physicist raises STEM awareness for Covina studentsWhen Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division physicist David O’Connor went out for a lunchtime run in October, he wasn’t expecting to end up in the midst of a middle school science experiment, let alone one that began about three hours away from China Lake.

O’Connor was running on Oct. 11 near the NAWS China Lake Golf Course when he found the partial remains of a yellow balloon with a note attached requesting its return. The balloon had been released almost exactly one month before by Tasneem Qasqas, an eighth grade student at the Sierra Vista Middle School in Covina.

Instead of just mailing the postcard back as requested, O’Connor turned his find into an outreach opportunity. He traveled to Covina Nov. 15 and returned the postcard in person to Qasqas. While there, he spoke to about 150 students about his work at NAWCWD as well as possible careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“This is the first time we have had an educational outreach program come to us, so it’s very exciting,” said Sierra Vista Middle School science teacher Sharyn Cortés-Cabello. “Having a federal employee from a Navy lab come here is a perfect opportunity for our students to see how the United States of America has real people who take science and apply it to what they do in their daily work and lives.”

Cortés-Cabello said the postcards from the experiment are usually returned in the mail.

“Having Mr. O’Connor here in person was a great opportunity to motivate students to learn,” she said.

O’Connor said that he was glad he made the extra effort and that he left with a new perspective after his visit with the students.

“It was great talking with the kids, and it was motivation for me too,” he said. “It helped me appreciate my own work more. Looking at it from the outside was a good reminder that I really do have a good job — and I’m grateful for it.”

Cortés-Cabello uses the balloon launch experiment every year to teach her science students about the behavior of gases. It is a cross-curricular lesson in which students reinforce their English skills and their science knowledge. Each student was required to address a postcard and write a note that was attached to a latex balloon.

The balloon acted as an expandable container, partially filled with helium to determine the farthest recorded distance the balloon will travel from the school in Covina. The class plotted location points on a map to identify where balloons were found.

“I’ve been doing this experiment since 2001,” Cortés-Cabello said. “China Lake is by far the farthest away a postcard has ever been returned so we are very excited.”

O’Connor, who has worked at China Lake for 28 years, said this was his first time supporting an education outreach effort.

“I hope I left them with a little bit of inspiration and maybe sparked an interest in a career in science for some of them,” he said.

Story First Published: 2012-11-21