Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lectures, instructs at Friends Seminary
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson came to Friends Seminary this fall to deliver memories, a love of science and a will to think differently.
The renowned scientist — director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, host of the PBS educational television show NOVA scienceNOW, former science advisor to President George W. Bush, and author of numerous books on physics — spent four school days at the seminary from October 28 to November 2. Tyson delivered classroom lectures, held question-and-answer sessions, joined students for lunch conversations, spoke privately with the science faculty, and delivered a two-hour public address on the importance of improving science literacy in the U.S.
“I thought he was phenomenal,” says Robert Lauder, principal of Friends Seminary. “He worked really, really hard and he gave this school the absolute best he had to give. There are not many people of his stature who will give double the time they promised just because they’re so passionate about their subject and so willing to connect with kids. He must have the opportunity to say these things 200 times a year, but he sounds like he just discovered the universe yesterday.”
Friends Seminary invited Tyson to be this year’s guest in its annual Visiting Scholar program, which in turn has become a highlight of the school’s 225th anniversary celebration. The program is made possible by an anonymous donor to augment the school’s curriculum by exposing students to scholars and artists who would not normally be accessible to pre-collegiate students.
One student who especially appreciated Tyson’s presence is senior Christol Patterson, who has watched his PBS show since she was a youngster. “I was incredibly excited because of that influence,” she says. “Even if you aren’t predisposed to science, it’s so easy to listen to and to digest what he’s saying, because he brings it up in such a fun way. I really took a lot from what he said. He provides an incredible view of how to see the world and where you fit in its spectrum.”
Patterson says Tyson was inspiring, a view shared by much of the student body, according to upper-school biology teacher Kerry Kline. “This really got their creative juices flowing,” she says. “Dr. Tyson talked to them about not giving up on something just because it’s difficult. He said that because it’s difficult you should want to do it. His idea is that it shouldn’t be the grades that motivate you, it should be pushing yourself and finding interests.”
As much as Patterson and other students were impressed with Tyson, Tyson reflected that admiration back on the kids. “Everybody here is motivated and smart,” he says. “I think you can find people that are motivated anywhere, but not this number of people. The depth of motivation is huge, as large as I’ve seen in any group. It’s a different experience for me as an educator.”
The experience was different for the students, as well, something that Hassan Wilson, the seminary’s science chair, says is valuable to learning. “They can see this is someone who dedicates his life to science,” he says. “They see that science is not just some subject you spend 45 minutes learning every day, because here’s this guy who’s thinking about these questions every day of his life.”
Tyson wants the students to remember the time he spent with them for four days, which is says is the point behind this kind of close connection in the educational environment. “Research has shown that when you do something different from the daily routine of classes, like go on a field trip or attend special activities, people remember those days long into adulthood,” he says. “I remember visiting a fire station in the third grade, I remember visiting the Bronx zoo, I remember visiting the Hayden Planetarium. I don’t always remember the name of the teachers who brought me, but I remember those visits. The breaking of routine creates moments of memory for you as a student that last long into adulthood and for the rest of your life.”
That, says Lauder, is a good portion of why the Visiting Scholars program was created. “Dr. Tyson is such a people person, and is such an extravert, and he takes such energy from being around the students that they take to him really well in return,” Lauder says. “He’s created a lot of buzz around the school, and that’s really part of the point.”