To most visitors, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) is a great place to learn about aviation and space flight history, but to a select cadre of ambitious students it is a place of meaningful employment. These students are part of the NASM Explainers Program, which provides high school and college students the opportunity to work for one of the most prestigious museums in the nation.
Explainers are students ages 16 and older who are specially trained to help visitors connect with and understand the museum’s artifacts and exhibitions through hands-on programming. According to NASM Explainers Program Coordinator Bevin James, the Explainers Program was developed to provide a better visitor experience by encouraging friendly, approachable human interaction, where technical concepts and exhibits are explained in smaller chunks of information.
“We have evidence through studies that visitors stop, engage, and linger at our exhibits when a knowledgeable Explainer is present,” says James. “Visitors who might otherwise walk past an exhibit will stop to listen and learn when that human interaction is offered.”
Bright red polo shirts make Explainers easy to spot on the museum floor, where they stand ready to greet visitors, answer questions, and conduct science demonstrations on aviation, space exploration, and astronomy. They engage visitors of all ages with fun and creative hands-on activity carts and interactive demonstrations on topics ranging from the forces of flight to humans in orbit.
Made possible through a generous $5,000,000 sponsorship from GE Aviation, the Explainers Program is present at both the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the companion NASM Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. At present, there are 70 Explainers employed at the D.C. site, and 50 at the Udvar-Hazy site. The Udvar-Hazy’s Chantilly location makes this opportunity logistically practical for Loudoun County students.
Of the 50 Explainers at the Udvar-Hazy location, 11 are in high school (both Fairfax and Loudoun County), and 39 are in college. The current Loudoun County schools that are represented include Loudoun Valley, Loudoun County, Rock Ridge, and Riverside high schools (with several recent graduates from Dominion and Potomac Falls), as well as Loudoun students attending Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Udvar-Hazy college Explainers currently hail from George Mason, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, the University of Mary Washington, the College of William and Mary, Northern Virginia Community College, the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Washington University in St. Louis, Cornell, Purdue, Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan, the University of Alabama, Johns Hopkins, North Carolina State, and Dartmouth.
Besides enjoying an amazing opportunity to work among iconic relics of aviation and space exploration, such as the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the supersonic Concorde, and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, Explainers are financially compensated for their time. All Explainers are part-time employees, and shifts are flexible to accommodate academic schedules. The application process is competitive, requiring letters of recommendation, academic transcripts, a completed application, a written statement of purpose, and at least one interview.
Although all Explainers become immersed and educated in highly technical topics related to aviation and space exploration, prior scientific knowledge is not a critical requirement for selection. “We consider each applicant in light of his or her strengths,” says James, “but in all cases we look for outgoing personalities with the ability to communicate effectively with visitors of diverse ages and backgrounds.”
Explainers who begin as college students are brought on as paid employees, but high school Explainers spend the first 100 hours of service as volunteers. New hires assist other Explainers while studying materials related to the museum’s Discovery Stations, such as Cosmic Survey (a game focusing on concepts dealing with the structure and evolution of the universe), Extravehicular Mobility Unit (demonstrating the astronaut space suit), and Living and Working in Space (obstacles humans must overcome to live and work in space). Explainers also man museum floor interactive TechQuest Stations, such as Rockets, Trajectory, and Exploring the Moon.
Upon satisfactory completion of the 100 volunteer hours, high school Explainers may be offered paid positions, which the museum hopes they will keep throughout their years as students. College Explainers who go to school far away often return to work during semester and summer breaks.
In addition to regular duties on the museum floor, Explainers also assist at special events, such as Family Days and special STEM and science outreach functions. Especially popular is the annual Air and Scare, where Explainers dress in theme costumes and manage educational stations that appeal to visiting children.
“For many Explainers, this is their first real work experience,” says James. “We expect them to treat the job seriously and adhere to our high standards of work ethic and conduct.” Because of the type of student that is naturally drawn to the position and the hiring screening process, NASM management rarely has problems with Explainer employment issues, notes James. “This is a phenomenal group of young employees – truly amazing.”
Explainers certainly enrich the museum’s educational efforts, but they are the first to admit they benefit from the experience as well. Besides monetary compensation, Explainers develop personal skills that follow them through life.
Explainer Aydan Rasulova describes her experience as an Explainer as “the first place where I felt capable of doing higher things.” “Nothing compares to the feeling of having a positive influence on people of all ages – seeing the excitement and curiosity in their eyes when they understand the material I’m presenting. My communications skills have vastly improved, as has my confidence in public speaking,” beams Rasulova.
Another Explainer, Robert Dunning, notes that it is personally rewarding to encourage younger individuals in their passion for STEM. “I also learn while collaborating with visitors. While broadly explaining that the Vestibular Canal helps us balance, I’ve had three different individuals teach me new facts about the canal based on their experience with health conditions,” marvels Dunning. Being an Explainer has provided Dunning with many “first” experiences: “a first taste of the workplace, a first boss, a first background check, a first employee identification badge, a first day with coworkers.” Dunning notes that “work has a very different social dynamic than high school.”
Explainer Mary Jimenez says she finds great joy in “being able to work at my favorite museum on weekends.” Most rewarding for Jimenez, though, is her experience “connecting with people from a range of different ages and cultures.” She also discovered that “through conducting paper airplane contests and talking about the moon during our TechQuest Race to the Moon activities, I adore teaching children, which I probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise.” Jimenez adds that “the confidence I have gained from my job will be beneficial in the future when I enter a highly competitive job environment, plus the knowledge I’ve gained about aerospace will always be useful,” as she hopes one day to work for NASA.
GE’s sponsorship has made it possible for the museum to remotely extend the Explainers’ efforts to people who are unable to physically visit the museum. Explainers routinely answer questions on the How Things Fly website: http://howthingsfly.si.edu. GE also piloted a program where Explainers engage in video broadcasts with children in select Cincinnati, Ohio, public schools, conducting interactive demonstrations and answering questions in front of a live classroom audience. NASM staff and GE hope to expand that effort to more schools in the future. “It’s a way to bring the museum’s content to communities that would never otherwise be able to visit,” says James.
Last year alone, the NASM counted more than 1.4 million visits to the Udvar-Hazy Center, which is why the Explainer Program is so vital to the museum’s mission of creating the best experience possible for every visitor. Hiring tends to surge in fall and spring waves, says James, “but we will accept applications at any time, and look forward to meeting interested students.”
Think you or someone you know would make a good Explainer? Visit the NASM website to read more about how to apply: https://airandspace.si.edu/support/get-involved/student-jobs.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located near Washington Dulles International Airport, 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, VA 20151.