Note: I’ve broken this interview up into two parts. This is the second part, and it focuses more on Jeffrey Bennett’s children’s books, and how his books were the first children’s books read in space! Read part 1 about his work as a non-fiction author here.
To recap, Jeffrey Bennett is a researcher, educator, author, and one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever heard of. He has a Ph.D. and M.S. in astrophysics, as well as a B.A. in biophysics, and he taught one of the first college courses on quantitative thinking in 1987. Bennett has also taught preschoolers and every level up through graduate school students, and was the Visiting Senior Scientist at NASA Headquarters for two years. He will also be the “Nifty Fifty” speaker at the 2014 USA Science and Engineering Festival.
As an author, Bennett has written three trade adult books: Math for Life, On the Cosmic Horizon, and Beyond UFOs. His textbook about quantitative reasoning is used by over 50,000 high school and college students every year. And he is the author of The Max Science Adventures series, which were the first children’s books to be read in space, by astronaut Alvin Drew during STS-133, the final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery. You can see the video here. On December 15 of this year, five books in the series will launch as part of the program Story Time from Space (in partnership with CASIS), where astronauts will film themselves reading the books from space as well as scientific demonstrations to help kids learn.
Bennett kindly offered to answer questions about his love of math, the importance of math in everyday life, and his children’s series.
PART 2 Questions:
Q. Talk about Big Kid Science, your independent publishing company. What motivated you to write books for kids?
J.B.: I started teaching elementary school kids while I was still in high school, and in college I ran my own science summer school for elementary and middle school kids, so I had long wanted to find a way to get kids more interested in science and especially in space. The problem was that for some 20 years, I couldn’t think of a good idea that would be different from other things out there for kids. Then, one day while walking with my infant son and dog Max, I looked up and saw the moon, and suddenly came up with the idea of writing a book about Max going to the moon, with accompanying scientific content. This helped me realize that my efforts should focus on the three intertwined goals that I call “education, perspective, and inspiration.” After surveying the publishing landscape, I decided that the best way to make sure I could stay focused on these goals was by starting my own publishing imprint, so I started Big Kid Science with great help from several friends who had worked with me on my college textbooks.
Q. What’s the mission of Big Kid Science?
J.B.: I started Big Kid Science with the idea that there should be a source of books that parents could always trust to be both interesting in terms of story and scientifically accurate. Of course, all publishers seek interesting stories, but if you look at the books that are out there for kids, you’ll find a lot that contain both factual and conceptual errors in their science. So I wanted to make sure that there’d be at least one publisher for whom they’d never have to worry about scientific accuracy. More specifically, I now think of the mission of Big Kid Science in terms of three intertwined goals:
- Education: Teach real and sophisticated science in a fun and entertaining context, and in a way that encourages both children and adults to learn.
- Perspective: Provide readers with a new perspective by on themselves, on the human race, and on our planet Earth.
- Inspiration: Inspire both children and adults to dream both of what they can do in their futures and of how much better the world could be if we all work together in building a better future.
Q. Talk about your books being included in the Story Time from Space program.
J.B.: Well, one day I get a phone call from a woman (Patricia Tribe) telling me that astronaut Alvin Drew would like to read Max Goes to the Moon from space, and asking if I’d mind. At first I thought someone must be playing a joke on me, but she quickly convinced me it was for real, and naturally I was very honored. Alvin read from an electronic file aboard the final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2011, and based on the success of that pilot effort, Patricia and Alvin decided to turn Story Time From Space into a more significant program. They joined up with a few others and asked if I’d be willing to write Max Goes to the Space Station, and then chose that along with my four prior titles for children as the first set of five books for the program. The books are now scheduled to be launched in December to the International Space Station, where astronauts will read them from orbit and the videos will be posted freely on the web along with curriculum materials and many other resources for both students and educators. You can find more information at www.StoryTimeFromSpace.com.
Q. Can you go into more detail about Story Time From Space? Now that Alvin Drew has read your book in space, have you had a chance to meet him in person? If so, what was that like?
J.B.: Story Time From Space is the brainchild of science educator Patricia Tribe and astronaut Alvin Drew. Alvin read Max Goes to the Moon during the final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2011, and based on the success of that “pilot project,” he and Patricia decided to move forward with a larger program. Patricia is heading up the program, with support from many others, including the NASA Astronaut office and the group (called “CASIS”) that manages the U.S. portion of the International Space Station. With regard to the program’s goal, here’s a quote from storytimefromspace.com: “Imagine reading stories from space to school children and families around the world, in an exciting new program that combines literature with science education.”
The first formal Story Time From Space launch is currently scheduled for December 15 aboard the Orbital 1 supply mission to the International Space Station (no people, just supplies); of course, the launch date may still change. The five books being launched are my current Big Kid Science set: Max Goes to the Moon, Max Goes to Mars, Max Goes to Jupiter, Max Goes to the Space Station, and The Wizard Who Saved the World. Note that I wrote Max Goes to the Space Station specifically for this launch, and you’ll see some references to it in the book.
Once the books reach the station, the onboard astronauts will video themselves doing the readings from the Cupola, which is the “room with a view” pictured on the cover of Max Goes to the Space Station. The readings won’t be broadcast live, because we don’t know exactly when they’ll occur; the astronauts can fit them in as time allows any time over a period of several months. Once the readings are done, the videos will be downloaded to the Story Time From Space team, who will edit them as needed and post them to the web so that teachers (and anyone else) can use them at their convenience. The Story Time team has also created a set of demos to accompany the science lessons in the books, and these will be launched next spring, with the astronauts performing the demos in weightlessness and videoing those as well.
As to the last part of your question: Yes, after Alvin read from space, we convinced him to come to Boulder to do some filming for the Max Goes to the Moon planetarium show, which was being developed at the time he flew and now is available in both English and Spanish from Fiske Planetarium in Boulder. It was great to meet him, and we have been friends ever since. He helped a lot with Max Goes to the Space Station, both in coming up with ideas for some critical elements of the story and in serving as a technical advisor both to me and to our artist, Michael Carroll, so that we’d have all the details about the station correct in both the text and the art.
Finally, if you don’t mind a little plug, I should note that while everything is set to go in terms of this first set of books being sent to space, the Story Time From Space team still needs to secure funding to continue the program in the future and to develop curriculum materials that would allow teachers to make the best possible use of the literature and science lessons in the books. So if anyone has any funding ideas, please let me know and I’ll get you in touch with the right people (you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Q. You’ve written textbooks, trade books, and children’s books. Do you have a favorite type of book to write? And if so, which one and why?
J.B.: I love all of it. I spend the bulk of my time on my textbooks, which forces me to keep abreast of the latest developments in all the fields in which I write (astronomy, astrobiology, quantitative reasoning, and statistical reasoning). This is a wonderful thing, because I find all of these subjects so fascinating. Indeed, I feel especially lucky because most of my scientific colleagues have no choice but to specialize in a narrow subfield, while I have a job that allows me to learn about everything that all of them are doing; what could be better than that? I also get a lot of personal satisfaction from the textbooks, because I know they are making a difference to large numbers of both professors and students. I feel much the same way about my adult trade books, which generally cover similar ground to my textbooks (though in much less depth) while giving me a chance to be a little more opinionated than I can be in my academic work.
Of course, from the standpoint of “fun,” the children’s books take the top spot. For one thing, they are the only books in which I have some fiction, which means I can be creative in a different way than in my purely nonfiction work. More important, being an author of children’s books gives me the opportunity to do school visits, in which I generally do assemblies with a couple hundred kids at a time. There’s nothing like the energy and enthusiasm of a group of kids like that, and I always leave my school visits greatly inspired.
Q. What are your plans for the future? Any other projects in the works?
J.B.: I’m just finishing up three books that will publish early next year. Two are textbooks that will publish in January: The Essential Cosmic Perspective, 7th Edition and Using and Understanding Mathematics, 6th Edition (both are published by Pearson/Addison-Wesley). The third is a trade book called What is Relativity? An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas and Why They Matter, which will publish in March from Columbia University Press.
With those books heading off to the printer, I’m turning my focus to several other projects that are in various stages of progress. On the college textbook side, I’m working on new editions of The Cosmic Perspective Fundamentals and Life in the Universe, both for early 2015, and we’re also working on an innovative new digital textbook for astronomy. On the trade side, I have two Big Kid Science projects in progress: a children’s book based on the Voyage Scale Model Solar System (the main one is in Washington DC, but we have exhibits in other cities as well), and a book about how to teach science that is aimed primarily at teachers but also more generally at parents and others interested in educational policy. I hope to have both of those projects published by next fall. I’m also working on a project for middle school science, based on using digital technologies and the new Next Generation Science Standards. I’m not really sure yet what I’ll do this project once I write it, but I’m hoping that it will fit an “if you build it, they will come” model. Finally, of course, I’m very involved with the Story Time From Space team, and looking forward to the work we’ll have ahead of us after the astronauts read the books next year.
So all that should keep me busy for at least the next year, and after that I’ll start looking through my long wish list of other projects I’d like to do…