STEINBERG: Tiny scientists mobilized to study solar eclipse

SHARE STEINBERG: Tiny scientists mobilized to study solar eclipse

Jason Henning (left), a post-doctoral student at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, talks about eclipses with children Tuesday at the Bright Horizons at Lakeview, a Chicago pre-school on Lincoln Avenue. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Jason Henning is a post-doctorate fellow at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. He’s been to the South Pole three times, working on the university’s 10-meter telescope there.

On Tuesday morning, he found himself advancing science in a place it doesn’t frequently go: sitting on a too small chair in a basement classroom with the lights dimmed.

“Who’s ready for an eclipse?” he asked a group of 4- and 5-year-olds sitting around a table at Bright Horizons at Lakeview, a preschool.

The youngsters didn’t exactly squeal “Yes!” in unison, but they at least cast their attention in his general direction. Henning proceeded, using a small model Earth, moon and, as a light source, a lamp with a dinosaur base.

“Does anybody know how you make night and day?” asked Henning. “Does anybody remember?”

“Spin the Earth,” squeaked Emily.


Henning was joined by Joshua Sobrin, a U. of C. physics graduate student, also with Kavli.

If it seems odd that a pair of such advanced scientific talents would spend time instructing children who might miss the eclipse Aug. 21 because it arrives in the middle of their nap time, well, there’s a simple explanation.

Sobrin’s wife, Sweta Sobrin, is a teacher at Bright Horizons.

“She had asked me to come in and do some kind of science-related activities with the kids. Scouring the Internet, I was a little bit disappointed,” Joshua Sobrin said. “When you Google-search ‘preschool science activities,’ a lot of what you come up with are based on shocking and awing kids, making science this mysterious thing.

“To people working in science, that’s the opposite of what science is: an intuitive way of exploring reality. That’s what preschoolers are doing: learning to explore the world around them by touching things and tasting things and knocking things over.”

The two U. of C. scientists and the pre-school teacher started a program called “First Discoveries,” and have been making monthly appearances at the preschool teaching kids ages 2 through 5 about sound, about shadows, about light. Some is obviously rubbing off. The kids shined flashlights on special beads.

“What’s this light called?” asked teacher Madeleine Simonds. “Ultra …”

“…violet,” said Austin.

“Yes!” she said. “Good remembering!”

It’s been an education process for the staff as well.

“The first topic was friction, and my thought was: ‘They’re 2. What are you going to do?'” said Amie Henry, director of Bright Horizons at Lakeview, one of a chain of 1,000 preschools around the globe. “It’s collaborating with the teachers too, and having them teach the teachers to teach science at a preschool level.”

I had to ask Henning: You’re not married to one of the teachers; what are you doing here?

“This is a great opportunity,” he said. “There’s no one working at the preschool level. We do a lot with high school, with a general audience. To grab the attention of really young kids, get them thinking about science, that it’s not a mystery but something they can apply in everyday life. Get them used to that idea, then they’re not scared of it when they’re thinking about doing something as a career. It’s a great thing to be a part of.”

Since one doesn’t get the chance, I had to also ask: How’s the South Pole Telescope — its official name — doing?

“Just this past austral summer we installed the third generation receiver on the telescope,” said Sobrin, who also has gone to the South Pole to work on the telescope. “Brand new optic system, brand new novel detectors. Really a scaled up cold-readout system. It was a big effort.”

Ah. Yes. We all could use more science education, but the eclipse is a particularly useful moment for sending young people off to a life of science.

“What’s really nice about the eclipse is, it’s something everybody in the United States is going to experience,” said Sweta Sobrin. “For some reason, we excuse children from trying to understand the phenomenon, but they get it here, and they really love this stuff and there’s no reason not to bring it to them.

“They might not ask the sort of questions that grown-ups do, but they’re asking questions. Which is nice.”

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