“You Should See Their Faces Light Up . . .”

“I’ve chatted with many students . . . and I get to know them rather quickly. Sometimes we talk about the earth, sun and moon, and I can see how some of them are envisioning and thinking in three dimensions. That’s inspiring to see.”—Ken Brown, Mechanical Engineer and RESET Volunteer Since 2006

Ken Brown chuckles when he describes one of his favorite RESET classroom moments: watching 14 students scramble around the room on all fours chasing down crickets to measure their length with a linear scale. “They get so excited,” shares Brown, “I’ve had to establish a ‘no scream zone.’ ”

case_study_1In 2000, Ken had been volunteering with a NASA program called GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), a volunteer program where students got involved in global warming research, including reporting weather patterns and topographical and geographical changes in their unique locales. Ken enjoyed the program, but he was looking for something more structured and formalized. A teacher at Marie Reed, the school where he was volunteering, told him about RESET. After learning a bit more online, he signed up.

Ken, who holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue and an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Catholic University, enjoyed a 30-year career at NASA. While at NASA, he served as an engineer on the fabrication, testing, and launch of satellites called Interplanetary Monitoring Platforms and on simulations that tested the Thematic Mapper Plus, which produces all the images of the earth on LANDSAT 7.

For the last seven years he’s volunteered at Malcolm X Elementary in Washington, DC, a school of which he has many fond memories: “I was interested in working in an inner-city school. I really like the teachers and the students there. These children really need science and math experiences that excite them. You should see their faces light up when they learn something new.”

Ken’s own inspiration began at an early age. Always a big reader, he was fascinated by how things work and the beauty of mathematics. “I had always enjoyed using my hands,” says

Ken “taking things apart and making models. I just gravitated to science.” Then, in high school, Ken’s geometry teacher fueled his imagination further by deriving solutions to problems several ways. “I had a feeling geometry was poetic. I really enjoyed the subtleties.”

One of Ken’s goals is to give students an insight into what happens inside a typical science laboratory—how an experiment and collection of data requires a protocol. “When a student hears or reads about a new finding or discovery, they know the lab work is always verified by other scientists. Then I want the students to ask themselves ‘how are scientific findings making our life on the planet better?’ ”

In addition to helping his students to visualize a laboratory protocol, Ken conducts a few forensics experiments with his class. The students watch a video on the life of barn owls. It shows owls casting off pellets of undigested bones. After examining common field mice bones, which are forensic evidence, the students write “a day in the life of an owl from evidence found.” He concludes his six sessions by taking the children on a field trip to the Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where the research labs there do similar work to what Ken does with the children during his RESET sessions—devise protocols and make measurements. Ken talks about the exciting discoveries made at NIH that improve our quality of life, and also mentions the types of jobs offered there, from data takers and machine operators to artists, draftsmen, and computer technicians.

Ken is a bit of a renaissance man. At 78, he runs 30 miles a week, writes for the Smithsonian’s Volcano Bulletin, raises bees, and is learning Mandarin. He enjoys being with Lynn, his partner, who was a former Peace Corps and legislative aide, his children and grandchildren, and former NASA colleagues.