Mountain View Voice

News - October 22, 2010

Valley tech stars wow students

Los Altos High shows how science, technology can pay off

by Nick Veronin

When it comes to high school students and cars, the general wisdom handed down from parents and teachers is to buckle up and obey the speed limit. However, the group of Los Altos High School students that gathered around Amir Rosenbaum's vehicle earlier this week received a slightly different message:

Buckle up and push the pedal to the metal.

It's not that Rosenbaum wants kids to disobey local traffic laws. He just wants teens to reach for their goals, whatever they may be.

And so, for Los Altos High School's fifth-annual Science and Tech Week, Rosenbaum showed off the car that recently allowed him to reach one of his goals — to travel over 400 miles per hour on land. Prior to showing his car to students, Rosenbaum gave a lecture titled, "Science and Technology vs Dumb Luck and Hard Work." In that lecture he described the engineering and physical challenges he had to overcome in order to reach his goal.

According to Los Altos Principal Wynne Satterwhite, the series of presentations from community members like Rosenbaum, along with area scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, give students "something to look forward to" after high school. It also demonstrates that classes in science, technology, engineering and math aren't just fodder for college transcripts.

"It translates what they are learning in the classroom to real life," Satterwhite said. "Kids can now see that the stuff they are learning is practical."

In addition to Rosenbaum, guests at this year's Science and Tech Week included representatives from Facebook, Google, NASA and Stanford. Danielle Feinberg, director of photography and lighting at Pixar Animation Studios, delivered the keynote address on Wednesday evening in an event that was open to the public.

All of the speakers volunteered their time.

"This is what's so cool about this," said Patty Einerson, an event organizer and parent of a Los Altos student. "We're in the heart of Silicon Valley, so all these resources are right at our doorstep."

The science of speed

Rosenbaum, a Los Altos Hills resident and owner of Spectre Performance, an automotive air filter company, wheeled his rocket-shaped speed car out behind Eagle Theater at lunch on Tuesday, Oct. 19, and fired it up. The roaring engine lured students in for a closer look.

"What is that?" one student asked in astonishment, and ran off to find his friends.

That, according to Rosenbaum, is the only gasoline-powered vehicle to drive faster than 400 miles per hour. He is only the 12th person to exceed that speed on wheels.

Jose Rodriguez, a senior from Mountain View, said the speedster was the only thing that had captured his attention all week.

"It's really fast," said Rodriguez, who likes working on cars.

Shooting for the moon

Shortly after lunch on Oct. 18, a group of about 400 students shuffled into the school's Eagle Theater to listen to Dr. Jennifer L. Heldmann, a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center. Her presentation, titled "Moon, Mars, and Beyond: Space Exploration," detailed how she and her fellow researchers from around the globe were working to solve the many logistical problems presented by a future manned mission to Mars.

Heldmann began by telling the students that all the work she does is dependent on math. "Every single day in my job I use those concepts, those key themes that you learn in class — you actually apply them."

But, she explained, math and rocket science aren't the only tools NASA needs to plan and execute planetary exploration. Heldmann and her team devote much of their time to trying to figure out where future explorers might find drinkable water on the red planet. If NASA can identify a source of potable water for its astronauts, future Mars missions could save fuel by packing less water. Scientists know water is there, but where exactly that water is, and how to access it, is another matter.

Figuring that out requires a multitude of scientific disciplines: physics, biology, chemistry and geology to name a few. On top of that, Heldmann said, solid communication, ability to work with others, and organizational skills are key.

She told the students that while her job had not taken her to the moon or Mars, it had given her the opportunity to travel around the world to remote locations — the desert in Chile, the Australian Outback, Antarctica — desolate places meant to simulate Martian topography and give researchers a chance to practice doing research in spacesuits and living in confined quarters as they would in a real Mars mission.

The scientist concluded by encouraging students to test the waters of many different fields through internships. If students in the audience found a career that they enjoyed, she said, they would be on the right track to living a productive happy life.

"I'm not going to say it's all fun and games, because it is a lot of work," said Heldmann, who was speaking to the students on her lunch break. "But you'll actually look forward to getting up and going to work."

John Hershey, a senior who attended Heldmann's lecture, isn't interested in working for NASA, but he said Science and Tech Week has made him realize that his academic career thus far has been building toward a career.

"I really enjoy it," Hershey said. "I like seeing that the work I do in high school can be used outside of school."

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