Palo Alto is a big town in the heart of the “silicon valley”, a region in the south of San Francisco crowded with some of the most famous high-tech companies (Apple, Google, Facebook… ) and countless start-up companies that made many people very rich from one day to another. The whole area is full of stereotypical residential american wealthy neighbourhoods: big houses with private gardens, big cars, big supermarkets. Even public schools (a typical problem of US education) are good here.
Palo Alto is also the town of Stanford, one of the elite Universities in the US. In this spotless beautiful campus I am doing a postdoc in Astrophysics. It took me several months to realize that the whole area is not as perfect and safe as I first thought. “On the other side of the 101” (101 is one of the major highways that cross California north to south) is East Palo Alto, a separate municipality, and here things are different. Here is where minorities live, manly hispanics and blacks, the people that do the most humble jobs in the area and work countless numbers of hours to send money back home.
I was shocked to hear that until few years ago it was one of the most dangerous areas in the US. In East Palo Alto schools are different, less teachers, less money for equipment, no money for school trips, not even to get a bus and come to Stanford (10 minutes away) to see the art museum or participate of the nice science outreach activities organized at the famous national particle accelerator, SLAC. So… we decide to go there. The administrator of the Astronomy department at Stanford contacts the manager of some East Palo Alto high schools, and we arrange two days of astronomy activities in two schools.
As I am about to move to Spain, I can only participate in the organization and the first day of activities, and everything goes great! Together with other postdocs and PhD students we prepare many activities, some of which we pick from the GalileoMobile handbook (the introductory talk, solar observations, galaxy classification…). The students are excited to experience an afternoon different from the usual classes, and, as always, we have the confirmation that kids (of all ages) love to hear about the cosmos and space exploration, especially kids that rarely have the chances of participating in science outreach activities. All activities go well, from the solar observations to the drawing of the Universe on the street with chalk. The fly-through at the end of the introductory talk, watched with a rolled paper to mimic a telescope, is always fascinating like a fancy 3D movie! And, on top of everything, it is always nice to chat with kids about our lives, the countries we are from and tell them what it’s like to be an astronomer.
Also, one thing I learned during the 2009 south american trip of GalileoMobile is that in every school, in every class, there is a kid with amazing curiosity and desire of learning. Kid’s questions can disarm you in their simplicity. While I was showing a drawing of the Milky Way, a kid asked me how do we know how the Milky Way looks like, given that we live inside it. It is a very simple, but yet very profound question, that requires a good explanation! He seemed to be satisfied when I pretended to be an insect sitting on the arm of one of his classmates. The insects looks around and see other kids far away. And he guesses that that piece of skin where he is standing and the half face he can see from his position, are likely part of something big that looks like the other kids.
While I very much miss the skies and schools we visited in South America in 2009, it was nice to experience a similar excitement of sharing some knowledge with equally interested, sweet (and mainly spanish speaking) kids in California!