DOINews: USGS: The Leaders of the Future Learn How to Help the World

Last edited 09/05/2019
Five young boys standing in the USGS lobby, holding notebooks and smiling.
Five members of the FIRST Lego league gather in the USGS lobby in anticipation of their upcoming lecture on geomagnetism. Photo by Mike Blanpie.
USGS scientist pointing to a geomagnetism exhibit in the USGS lobby as a group of young boys watch.
Dr. Bill Leith, the senior science advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards, uses an exhibit in the USGS lobby to teach the FIRST Lego League team about geomagnetism. Photo by Mike Blanpied.
Several young boys sitting in large chairs around a conference table, listening to a USGS scientist and asking questions.
Dr. Leith's presentation on geomagnetism sparks multiple questions from the FIRST Lego league team, as they sit around the table in the USGS conference room. Photograph by Ethan Alpern.
Closeup of an old compass
An old compass reacts to the natural polarity of the Earth. Image provided by Dr. Jeffrey Love, USGS.

This summer, I watched as six young boys and their fathers came to USGS headquarters in Reston, Va., to learn about geomagnetism but left wanting to help our scientists make the world a better place.

These 10- and 11-year-olds from Herndon, Va., are part of a FIRST Lego League team, a competition for kids to learn science in a fun and competitive fashion. This year's theme is “Nature's Fury,” so the team came to USGS to meet Dr. Bill Leith, the senior science advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards, and learn about geomagnetism and the effect of coronal mass ejections or “solar storms.”

Geomagnetism is the study of the Earth's magnetic field, which stems from the Earth's core. Solar storms are bursts of solar wind or “flares” that shoot out from the Sun.

Since 1859, there have been four major solar storms that have affected the Earth's magnetic field. When these flares interact with the Earth's magnetic field, there is a potential that the Earth's power lines will be permanently damaged, and many metals that conduct electricity also have potential risk of damage.

The kids appeared excited to learn that USGS operates 14 observatories across the United States and its territories, and has been recording data for more than 110 years. Nicholas, 11, even asked if USGS ever has “too much information” to process. With a smile, Leith explained that scientists are always “eager for more data,” because the goal of USGS' work with geomagnetism is to predict the solar storms with enough warning to tell the public. If there is sufficient warning, entire power grids can be turned off preemptively before the Earth's magnetic fields are affected, which would prevent permanent and long-term damage. Aditya, 11, agreed that the preemptive approach is “better than [damaging all of] the [magnetic data-collecting] transformers.”

Leith asked the kids if they knew how to navigate if a solar storm caused a global positioning system failure, and Aditya, 11, knew to go outdoors and “use the stars.” Leith said he could not have been more impressed with the knowledge and intelligence these kids brought to the table.

Sparked by inspiration, the kids bombarded Leith with ideas for how citizens could help USGS collect more data. Nicholas suggested developing an app for smartphones that could compile magnetic data and automatically send it to USGS observatories. Although Leith said he loved the idea, he explained that phones would not be an effective tool because of their constant proximity to other conducting metals, and he demonstrated by showing the kids how the compass on his iPhone was skewed when placed upon a powerstrip.

The ideas kept flowing as Alex, 10, inquired about installing household magnetometers, and asked “if [magnetometers] can't be near anything charged, will they work in homes?” As a group, the kids thought the best option would be to develop neighborhood magnetometers and place them strategically in areas where there would be the least magnetic disturbances.

The highlight of the presentation was when Aditya, 11, asked, “Is there anything that we can do for you?” Amazed with the passion to learn and help, Leith could do nothing but smile, then jokingly said “an inexpensive household magnetometer with protection from all metals wouldn't hurt.” All of the kids and their fathers laughed.

Leith explained that the “USGS has an open-data policy” with regard to all scientific findings and data, because it is important for the people that the world of science continuously evolve.

To see these children so excited to help and learn was wonderful, and I look forward to them becoming the next generation of leaders in the world of science.

By: Ethan Alpern, public affairs specialist, USGS

Sept. 20, 2013

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