Meet Scientist Sally of OPEF's Science Alliance Program

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By Melissa Ford

Coach - Personal & Business

Dr. Sally Laurent-Muehleisen aka Scientist Sally is an astrophysicist and a professor of physics at IIT. She also volunteers through Oak Park Education Foundation’s Science Alliance program working with District 97 students. Recently, Scientist Sally was at Longfellow School introducing Mr. Eric Podlasek’s and Mrs. Roxane Pasquinelli’s 2nd and 3rd graders to the magic of comet making. 

Prior to her classroom appearance, I spoke with Dr. Laurent-Muehleisen about science, her connection to Oak Park Education Foundation (OPEF), and comets!

How did you get your start with OPEF?

A couple of years ago when my daughter attended Longfellow School, I saw on OPEF’s web page that they were recruiting scientists. I knew I wanted to participate because I think it is the obligation of every scientist to do outreach, especially women scientists and particularly with younger kids before they develop a gender bias. Whether or not a child pursues science, I like to believe that one day s/he might just think back to grade school and remember that a female scientist came into the classroom. 

Why is science so important to a child’s education?

Science teaches kids how to think critically. I don’t care if you want to be a cook, stay-at-home mom, lawyer, or teacher. If you can’t think critically, you are setting yourself up for bad misperceptions for the rest of your life. The scientific process is about forming a question, gathering and reanalyzing the data, and then forming a perception based on what you observed. This is not specific to science; it’s just a good life skill!

I always tell my students that scientists learn far more by being wrong than be being right. I have my students make predictions before they do an experiment. There is nothing wrong with being wrong. In fact, if you are right then you don’t know that your thought process is correct.

The bottom line is that science is all about curiosity and investigation, and isn’t that just a good thing to carry with you in life, even if you don’t pursue science as a career?

How do you benefit from working with kids through OPEF?

It makes me a better teacher. College kids are much more reticent to ask questions, fearing they’ll look stupid. Second and third graders have less inhibitions. They may tell you that they don’t understand or don’t see how something works. It helps me think more critically about what I am saying it and how I am saying it. 

Why focus on comets, a minor part of our solar system?  

Well, first and foremost, science ought to be fun (in my opinion, too much of the way science and math is taught is drudgery and memorization), and making comets is definitely fun for kids and adults, too. Also, the solar system is part of the curriculum for 3rd graders and there are very few parts of the solar system we can see during the day when school is in session.   

It turns out that comets are crucial to life on Earth. We would not be here without comets.  Carl Sagan was famous for saying we are all "star stuff" because all the elements (Calcium, Iron, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, etc) in our bodies were made in stars, but it is equally true that we are all "comet people.” Our bodies are something like 60-70% water, but when the Earth first formed it was so hot that all (or very nearly all) the water boiled off into space, leaving the Earth hot and dry.  

About 4 billion years ago, in a period called the Heavy Bombardment, the newly formed Earth was hit by billions and billions of comets (and meteors) which brought water with them. Nearly all of the Earth which is made of water (about 70%), came from comets and meteors.  See: 

This means that all the water including the water in our bodies originally came from comets (or asteroids). We literally come from outer space - or at least the water in our bodies do.  It turns out comets also brought other important stuff with them like "organic matter" which may have formed the amino acids, which turned into proteins which turned into the very first life forms which evolved on Earth billions of years ago. So, in some sense, we may actually be descended from comets!

I like the message this sends, and I like how fun and memorable making comets with kids is. Even if they don't all have enough interest in science to consider making it a career, they should understand how fun it is and how it works:  hypothesis, experiment, and revision. 

What has made OPEF so special for you?

In big part, I’d like to thank Sandra Flowers, a third grade teacher at Longfellow, who has helped me revise the science program and make it so much better. Also, Deb Abrahamson, Executive Director of Oak Park Education Foundation, has been wonderful! I love all the things that OPEF does, although, of course, Science Alliance is my favorite! 

Next Blog Post: Longfellow Scientists Create Comets with Scientist Sally


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