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  • Kindling a Passion for Science

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2008
Greg Olsen

The kids I speak to are mostly in grades 3 through 8, which I feel is the most approachable group. I always wear my flight suit and “play the role” of a spaceman. Personally, I have far too much respect for the professional American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut ever to call myself by either of those terms. But a spaceman is what kids are looking for when I stroll into the room, and I try not to disappoint them.

I usually start by asking how many students struggle — just a little bit — with math. A couple of hands go up, and eventually most of the hands are raised. They are startled to see mine raised as well.


Since my launch aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket to theInternational Space Station in October 2005, I’ve given more than 300 talks on space to school groups. I use my “15 minutes” of space fame to try to kindle the same kind of passion for science and technology in today’s kids that my generation had after Sputnik was launched and the moon race had begun.

I tell them how I struggled with math and failed trigonometry in high school. Then I ask them, “So how can a guy with that kind of background end up with a bunch of advanced technical degrees, earn 12 patents, have a career as a research scientist, start two successful high-tech companies and then go into space?”

The answer is: Don’t give up — don’t ever give up! I tell them that those words are the secret to life, whether you want to become a scientist, a baseball player, an actress or whatever.

I relate how I graduated from high school with a 78 average and was accepted into the engineering program at Fairleigh Dickinson University on the condition that I make up trigonometry in summer school. A big-league school probably would have scoffed at my desire to be an engineer.

I completed my first semester with a “C” average. After hooking up with a bunch of guys who were serious students, I eventually caught on and made the dean’s list. But I worked mighty hard for every “B” and the occasional “A” that I received. In retrospect, I realize that I had a big advantage over many students. I had no pretensions about being the smartest guy in the room. All I wanted was to pass!

I tell these anecdotes not to gain sympathy or approval — but to dispel the stereotype that scientists and engineers were all raving geniuses in school, getting straight A’s, never struggling (and that they were mostly white males, as well). The truth is, most struggled just like me.

Once, I was giving my space talk at a middle school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Near the end of my presentation, one of the students shouted out, “Hey, I read on the Internet that your trip cost $20 million. Where did you get that kind of money?” I was a bit taken aback and embarrassed but felt that such a forthright question deserved a clear answer.

I told him that I had started a high-tech company that I later sold for a big pile of money, which I used to finance my trip. Naturally he retorted: “So how’d you get this high-tech company?” I told him that I was able to start a high-tech company because, even though I had failed trigonometry in high school, I hadn’t given up.

Classroom inspiration

I am hardly the only one spreading this gospel. The space program has provided great motivation for kids to pursue science and engineering careers. NASA astronauts are required to visit schools, and they do so willingly. I would urge everyone who reads this article to do the same. Beyond being supremely important, talking to kids in school can be a lot of fun — and it’s that fun that helps you get your points across. There is no getting around the information, numbers, data and, yes, equations. We shouldn’t hide that — but we can make it fun.

To boost the entertainment quotient, I bring in some liquid nitrogen, have the noisiest kid blow up a balloon, then dunk it in the LN2 … and watch their amazement as it shrinks to nothing and then fully expands when pulled out. I ask them why this happened, what happened to those air atoms — what are “atoms” anyway?

Then I pull out the Van de Graaff generator, and any kid who isn’t already having a good time is pulling on my arm, begging me to let him or her get “charged.” This is great for girls with long hair — they just delight in seeing their hair sticking straight up off their heads. During one of these sessions, I usually fill up a whole memory card on my digital camera!

Many of us grew up with Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and the moon race. Those were our motivators. Kids today don’t have the momentous events, larger-than-life role models and great national missions to focus their attention on science and engineering, so it is even more important for all of us in these fields to reach out to them. You don’t have to be an astronaut to impress kids and arouse their interest. You can get that same “oooh and ahhh” effect with magnets, lasers and prisms.

It is my sincere hope that our next political administration will make a serious effort to promote science as a way to conquer the big problems our world faces today, just as we were inspired by [President] Kennedy to reach for the moon. We need to get all citizens — and especially the kids — involved in science to achieve energy independence, understand our environment and make a committed effort to put a woman on Mars by the year 2020.

Meet the author

Greg Olsen was the third private citizen to orbit the Earth on the International Space Station. After a career as a research scientist and entrepreneur, he is now president of GHO Ventures in Princeton, N.J., a company that manages his angel investments, South African winery and Montana ranch. Olsen also gives talks to schoolchildren — especially minorities and females — to encourage them to consider careers in science and engineering; e-mail:

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