Oberlin Blogs

Trial by Fire

January 31, 2010

Zoe McLaughlin ’11

As you may recall, after Nicaragua I planned on interning at the local science museum, which is exactly what I've been doing. Since this is a very informal experience--I don't need to get any credit or fulfill any pre-set expectations--things have been a bit chaotic, but very cool. Basically, I come in each morning and figure out what I'm going to do for the day. In this way, I've managed to dabble through many different parts of museum life, from floor work to education to surfing the internet for cool science experiments.

The highlight, though, was the weekend demonstrations that I got to help out with. As I said, everything about this internship has been at the spur of the moment. For these demonstrations, we planned slightly ahead--I knew to come in on the weekend.

Before the show started, I was given a brief description of what was going to happen. A very brief description. There was some talk of a heat gun, a milk carton, and a jet engine, most of which went right over my head. I did my best deer in the headlights impression, at which point the guy I was assisting said not to worry, he'd help me with some of the talking. Then he went to make an announcement to guide the hordes of people to us.

Since this is how my life always works, one of the first families to walk in was actually a family I knew quite well. They go to my church and are pretty darn awesome even if they do make it a habit of showing up where they're least expected. Like the science museum where I figured no one I knew would be on a Saturday afternoon. Naturally, I marched over and asked them which of my parents I had to thank for this. They gave conflicting answers, which leads me to believe that there was a significant amount of coaching going on.

Then we did the show. I mainly stood there and smiled prettily while my counterpart said enlightening and exciting things about science like, "When you think catalyst, think cattle prod." Then occasionally he'd look at me and say, "And now Zoë's going to do something."

The first time he said this, I very smoothly explained what a polymer is. ("This is a polymer it's a bunch of..." [awkward pause] "...smaller pieces all stuck together." [big smile]) Then I used my heat gun to warm up the milk carton, blew into it, and created a plastic bag. Presto-changeo. One down, one to go.

My cohort then explained about jet engines while I eyed the water cooler cistern and jar of methanol on the table in front of me. Then it was my turn to do things again which was made abundantly clear when he walked over to the wall to turn the lights off. I did what he'd instructed me to do--pour in the methanol, mix it up, pour it back--then started considering the problem of how to light it.

"Do you know what you're doing?" my fearless leader asked.

"No," I said. "But I'll figure it out." I brandished a lighter.

"Do you know how to use that?" he asked.

"No," I said. "But I'm getting there." After pushing or flicking the various buttons and switches on the lighter (there were three), I managed to get fire. So I lit up the jet engine. And it jetted. Not bad at all for making it up on the spot.

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