Igniting students’ enthusiasm for science

November 26, 2018

Hubert van Hecke is not a professional teacher. But he has a theory about education that he’s found helpful when he tries to instill scientific curiosity in elementary school students.

“Kids remember when things go bang,” van Hecke said in a recent interview. “I’ve been doing this for a while, so I’ve got a big bag of tricks and demos.”

The Dutch-born van Hecke, 65, a retired physicist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for about 30 years, has been conducting weekly science classes at Wood Gormley Elementary School for more than two decades.

He earned a nickname there: Mr. Science.

Van Hecke has been making things go bang at Wood Gormley since 1996, when his own kids were students at the school. Because of this work, he has been named one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2018.

“My daughter was in a combined third- and fourth-grade class,” he said, “and her teacher knew I was a scientist, so she asked me to help in the class.” He started coming in once a week.

His daughter is now 31, and his son is 29. Van Hecke said he “followed them up” as they advanced through Wood Gormley — and he continued his weekly classes after they moved on to middle school.

So what are these “explosive” experiments in van Hecke’s bag of tricks?

“I have a cardboard contraption that makes a tornado,” he said. “By tradition, for the last lesson [of the school year] we go outside and launch water rockets. … We measure the altitude and see what makes them go higher.”

Once a year, van Hecke also conducts a class he calls “Fun with Liquid Hydrogen.”

And he has fun with the speed of sound.

“We go outside and measure the speed of sound on the playground,” he said. “… All you need is something to make noise, like a can and a spoon, a tape measure to measure the distance to the wall where the echo comes from and an alarm clock with a second hand.”

He speaks about these experiments with an enthusiasm that can only be described as contagious.

“I try to do what I call cardboard-and-duct-tape science,” van Hecke said. “Simple stuff with no fancy equipment.”

The cardboard-and-duct-tape approach apparently proved inspirational to at least one of his Wood Gormley kids.

A former student, Faris Wald, nabbed the top $25,000 prize last year year in the national Broadcom MASTERS science competition and won top honors at the 2017 New Mexico State Science and Engineering Fair.

Wald did a presentation and 28-page report about whether sunspots and the sun’s coronal hole influence the frequency of cyclones on Earth.

The boy credited van Hecke with sparking his interest in science, although Wald admitted to The New Mexican that he’d never learned the real name of Mr. Science.

Born in Amsterdam, where he still has family, van Hecke moved to the U.S. in his early 20s. He earned an undergraduate degree in physics from Louisiana State University — where he also met his wife, Deborah. He earned his doctorate from Syracuse University.

“When I got my Ph.D., I was looking for a job and there was a fresh round of experiments being started at CERN,” he said, referring to the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland.

“American Universities were part of this,” he said. “Los Alamos was part of this new wave of research. … Being European, I was looking for a job that would post me at CERN for a couple of years. So, out of the offers, I picked Los Alamos. They needed somebody on the ground there that spoke French. You have to negotiate with all the techs and the ground crew and train drivers and all that.

“So I was stationed there for a couple of years [starting in 1987], and then we moved to Santa Fe.”

Though he mainly shapes young minds at Wood Gormley, van Hecke occasionally gets invited to other schools.

He’s also involved in the local Alliance for Science, which provides judges for science fairs at Santa Fe schools. The alliance has a new Adopt a School program.

“The first school we’re targeting is E.J. Martinez [Elementary School],” van Hecke said. He’s volunteered to teach science there.

And while it’s not exactly cardboard-and-duct-tape, van Hecke said he and Susan Webster, a sixth-grade teacher at Wood Gormley, have been teaching kids how to use a 3D printer. He’s also been working with the nonprofit MAKE Santa Fe to develop 3D printer courses for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Referring to his regular lessons at Wood Gormley, van Hecke said, “I do have an agenda. I always have a session on evolution, energy and climate change.

“I also want them to get a feel of the universe as a whole,” he said. “It’s big, but it’s finite. And if you work at it, it’s understandable. There are no limits to what you can find out. The universe is something you can ask questions about. And if you work at it, you can get answers.”

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