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From August 16, 2004, News-Sentinel

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Galaxy Girls breaking rules of science

Thomas W. Burgess, background, gives a lesson in robotics to members of the Galaxy Girls Inc. of Oak Ridge at Oak Ridge National Laboratory Orchi Haghaghi is a little girl with big eyes and even bigger dreams.

By Frank Munger
August 16, 2004

When she grows up, she wants to be an actress or maybe a professional soccer player.

Orchi also likes space, particularly the constellations, which is why the rising seventh grader at Jefferson Middle School was at Oak Ridge National Laboratory the other day.

She and the rest of the "Galaxy Girls" were on a field trip, learning about space and physics, computers and robots. Just as important, they were learning what it takes to become a scientist and starting to grasp the lifetime of possibilities.

How cool is that?

Galaxy Girls is an Oak Ridge pilot project that focuses on space and space physics. It is funded by the National Science Foundation and carried out by Girls Inc. The four-week program targets fifth- through eighth-graders and tries to get them interested -- and keep them interested -- in science, math, engineering and technology.

The Oak Ridge model may be used across the country to help spread the word: Girls and science do mix.

"We're trying to break the stereotype of men having these jobs only," said Lorraine Trabalka, coordinator of the program for Girls Inc.

The proximity of Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a huge benefit to the local program, and other field trips include the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Challenger Center in Chattanooga.

Many scientists and engineers relish the chance to share their passion for science with kids who may someday take their place in the research lab.

Computer scientist Stewart Dickson entertained Orchi and the other Galaxy Girls in a special theater that uses 27 high-definition video projectors to visualize the scientific problem-solving that takes place in the nearby supercomputers.

As he pointed to a colorful depiction of a core-collapse supernova, Dickson told his young audience about the exploding star.

"This creates the kind of star dust we're all made of," he said.

When asked what kind of educational background is necessary to do high-tech visualizations, Dickson said a bachelor's degree in computer science would go a long way.

He noted that math and geometry and trigonometry are used in simulating a roller-coaster ride on the big screen.

"It's some of the same science that goes into video games," he said.

The girls ooohed and ahhhed at the dramatic projections, including computer models that showed carbon uptake in ecological systems -- an important component of global climate change.

"The planet breathes primarily through the oceans," Dickson said.

Marilyn McLaughlin, a former teacher, is visitor relations coordinator at ORNL. She accompanied the Galaxy Girls during their recent visit, chauffering them from the computer theater to a robotics lab and other research sites.

McLaughlin has conducted hundreds of tours over the past 20 years and still gets excited when helping others learn about science and technology.

"I think this is a great example of how Oak Ridge National Laboratory can reach out into the community and, in this particular project, to interest young women in math, science and education," she said.

A valuable component is letting lab scientists tell youngsters about their career paths, sharing what it takes to become a researcher and how to prepare for such a job.

"You know, we're not all geeks," one of the scientists told the group.

McLaughlin said studies have shown that you need to "capture" kids when they're still in grade school if you really want to have an impact on their career decisions.

"Whether they go into careers in math and science or not, they're learning," she said. "No, they probably won't remember all about fusion or fission, but they're learning lots of little things that they've heard about over the years but didn't really make any sense -- things like the Milky Way and the galaxies. They even learned today who Magellan was."

Thomas Burgess, the remote systems research leader in ORNL's Nuclear Science and Technology Division, explained that space robotics had its origins in the nuclear program. The idea was to put remotely operated machines where humans dared not go, whether it's an intensely radioactive setting or a difficult assignment outside a spacecraft that's orbiting Earth.

"Robotics can be applied to hazardous environments," Burgess said. "Space is no different."

Burgess and other ORNL research staffers showed the girls an Andros Mark V robot manufactured by Remotec, an Oak Ridge company, and talked about NASA's Robonaut and other projects in which advanced machines will take on the characteristics -- and roles -- of humans.

Kristen Dye, a Clinton girl who'll be a sixth-grader this year at St. Mary's, said she'd like to be an open-heart surgeon or maybe even be an astronaut.

"I think it's cool how stars can grow and produce energy, and I think it's cool that there could be different life on different planets,'' Kristen said.

During an earlier camp activity, the Galaxy Girls got to work on their own space project.

"We made rockets and got to shoot them off," Orchi said.

How far did they go?

"Really high," she said.

As high as life's possibilities.

Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329.

Copyright 2004, KnoxNews, All Rights Reserved.
Mirrored with permission