Illinois Space Society goes on the road with science magic
A little girl sits in the front row of the auditorium at Urbana Free Library on Saturday afternoon. She is wearing a red headband and bow in her hair, a gray sweater, and a white skirt that’s perfect for twirling, but she is not. She is sitting, actually leaning forward, in rapt attention alongside a row of other young children. Their parents, standing at the back of the room, are also completely engaged in a presentation by five college students.
What probably looks like a magic show to the kids, is actually a series of science experiments to demonstrate what materials might be best for astronauts to use when traveling in space, and what won’t work at all.
The magicians/scientists are five students from the Department of Aerospace Engineering who volunteer their time as members of Illinois Space Society, the University of Illinois chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Their goal is to share their enthusiasm for space exploration with the next generation of aerospace engineers.
This is already the second time within a month that a group of ISS students have taken their show on the road. This time, the group is made up of freshmen Chloe Hettick and Amy Exposito, sophomores David Robbins and Riley Wilford, and junior Shivani Ganesh.
In the magic-show portion of the presentation, Ganesh does most of the talking. She has the most experience. It’s obvious that she has done this before numerous times. Her rapid fire delivery and broad facial expressions dramatically communicate how passionate she is about the topic.
The demonstration begins by dunking a fresh red rose into the vat of liquid nitrogen. It comes out and gets smashed to smithereens. Next, Robbins blows up a pink balloon. Using a big pair of thongs, Exposito dips it into the liquid nitrogen. Everyone, including the parents, expect it to shatter like the rose, but it doesn’t. It looks like the balloon is losing air, then starts to expand again, like magic.
Ganesh says, “What just happened? Why do you think it did that?” The kids venture a few guesses and Ganesh provides a simplified explanation.
What about a penny? After submerging it, Hettick picks up a hammer and whacks it. It breaks. She holds the penny fragments in the palm of an enormous thermal glove, and shows it up close to each of the children, including the girl in the twirly skirt.
Ganesh asks, “What about an older penny—one made with a larger percentage of copper?” While she continues talking, the other four student scientists search through a pile of pennies for an old one to try. A mom simultaneously digs in her purse and contributes a 1962 penny to the cause.
This time, the penny doesn’t crack, even under multiple thwacks from Hettick.
Ganesh wraps up the science portion with a short statement confirming that copper is good material to use in space. Then, while the crowd is still focused, she asks the unexpected, “Who’d like to eat a frozen marshmallow?” Everyone’s hands shoot up in the air, including those of the other college students.
The children line up at the table for a turn as Exposito grabs a marshmallow with the thongs, dunks it, then drops it from a few inches above into tiny cupped hands. One boy about seven years old suddenly takes his hands away, saying he has to take his retainer out before he can eat a frozen marshmallow. “It’s ok,” Ganesh says quickly, “We understand. We all have retainers.”
With that, the presentation ends, and the kids are led over to a long table, preset with blank paper and markers for them to draw mission patches.
Exposito said after the event, a lot of the kids wanted more marshmallows and to keep the experiments going, but unfortunately, time and the liquid nitrogen had run out.
“The kids were also very focused on their mission patches even after we started packing up,” Exposito said. “They created mission patches for their missions to Mars, the moon, and even Pluto. One girl came up to me afterward and asked if future missions to Mars already had their mission patches. She then went on to convince me that they should use her mission patch.”
Why would Exposito and the others spend time on a Saturday afternoon doing this sort of outreach?
"I want to help kids find a passion-- something that will excite them and encourage them to learn more,” Exposito said. “Space is one of my passions and what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than sharing that with others?"