Lab's Science on Saturday draws standing room only audience

Feb. 7, 2012

Lab's Science on Saturday draws standing room only audience

Brian D Johnson,
More than 1,100 local people and more worldwide attended the first lecture in the popular "Science on Saturday" series this past Saturday. For the first time, the program was broadcast over the Internet, allowing participants to interact with the presenter by asking questions during the presentation.

This year's Science on Saturday program, now in its 17the season, is shaping up to be the best attended of any previous year.

Chuck Rogge, a member of the board for the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, said: "Two students told me Science on Saturday keeps getting better every year. They told me that Saturday's program was the most exciting and informative program they've attended."

Supported by a social media program including Facebook and Twitter, thousands of people from around the world were able to attend a program led by Lab scientist Morgan Burks and Los Gatos school teacher Dan Burns entitled, "The Gamma-Ray Spectrometer at Mercury: A Seven Year Journey to the Innermost Planet."

"The lecture let the audience fly along on NASA's MESSENGER mission to the planet Mercury. On the trip to the Sun's nearest planet, the audience learned about the science and engineering that went into the mission," said Richard Farnsworth, manager of the Lab's Science Education Program.

"What made the program extra special for me was it explained the underlying science of the mission," said Jim Key, father of Spencer Key, a senior physics major at the University of California, Santa Cruz and president of the university's Society of Physics Students. "Burks and Burns explained -- and showed -- what gamma rays are, how spectrometry works and how gravity is created. The program was all about the mission, why the mission was created, how the mission works and the science inside the mission."

Science on Saturday is funded by the deputy director for Science & Technology, Tomas Diaz de la Rubia. "Right now," said Diaz de la Rubia, "MESSENGER is orbiting around Mercury and not a single textbook on Earth has anything about it. Science on Saturdays lets kids learn about the mission first hand from one of the people responsible for designing and building it."

Farnsworth said: "The program is deeply altruistic but includes the Lab's enlightened self-interest. Today, a 14-year-old middle school student is preparing for a career decision and in 10 years could have a Ph.D. and an offer from the Lab. If the Lab sparked that student's interest in science and technology and shaped a career decision, then the nation as a whole -- and perhaps the Lab in particular -- is better off."

Saturday's event drew 91 online viewers, seven of which posed questions for the presenters to address during the live event.

"We're starting to use social media to expand the reach of Science on Saturday events," said Nolan O'Brien, a Lab employee who is helping the program reach students in cyberspace. "Everyone here at the Lab can play an immediate role in motivating students to consider a future in science. If half of the Lab's employees shared this Saturday's event invitation or within their personal networks on Facebook, we would expand our reach terrifically."

One interesting outcome of broadcasting and archiving the program on the internet came from Burks: "My mother in Eureka Springs, Ark. was able to watch the program today. She's never had the chance to really see me at work before."

People can watch the archived program either over the Lab's official Facebook page   or on the Lab's LiveStream channel .

"I'm glad people around the planet can watch and learn," Spencer Key said. "It's an important for people wherever they live. The MESSENGER mission benefits everyone on Earth, so it's good people around the world know more about it."

The next Science on Saturday programs include:

Feb. 11: "Sleuthing Seismic Signals: Understanding Earthquake Hazard and Monitoring Nuclear Explosions," by LLNL scientist Sean Ford and teacher Ken Wedel.

Feb. 18: "Space Junk: Traffic Cops in Space," by LLNL scientist John Henderson and teacher Tom Shefler.

March 3: "Restoring Sight to the Blind: Bridging the Medical Gap with Technology," by LLNL scientist Sat Pannu and teacher Kirk Brown.