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From Mechanical Engineer to Children’s Book Author: An Interview with Jerome Pohlen

After giving Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities and Thought Experiments a glowing review, Debbie Glade was thrilled when Jerome Pohlen, author and Senior Editor at Chicago Review Press, agreed to an interview with Good Reads with Ronna.

After receiving his Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Notre Dame University, Jerome joined the U.S. Peace Corps, volunteering for two years in the Republic of Benin, West Africa. Upon his return stateside, he started his career as an engineer, but soon realized he’d rather be teaching so he returned to school for a Master’s Degree in Education. That of course, led him to a teaching position and later, a job with an educational toy company where he created science kits for kids. Next he wrote a series of Oddball travel books, and most recently, Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids.

Author Jerome Pohlen

Can you tell us a little bit about your work in the U.S. Peace Corps?

I worked with a group that taught wood conservation, specifically through tree planting and efficient (and easy-to-build) mud stoves. For most villagers, who cooked on open fires, these mud stoves could cut their wood consumption in half, saving them money, time, smoke in their eyes . . . and it was pretty good for the forests, too.

What a fascinating experience that must have been. Was it that work that inspired you to write your Oddball travel books? And in any way did it influence your desire to educate or write for children?

The Oddball books came after I was a teacher. I traveled a lot for my job with the educational toy company, and started writing a self-published travel magazine about the goofy destinations I visited on the side. That magazine turned into the Oddball series.

What made you decide to get your Master’s Degree in Education and teach rather than continue in the field of mechanical engineering?

After working as an engineer for a few years, I realized that I didn’t have the passion I needed to make it a career. Engineering can be very specialized, narrowing your focus, and I was more interested in a variety of subjects, some having nothing to do with science. Plus, I wanted a job where I had more human interaction.

With your experience as a teacher, what is your opinion about the level of science education in America’s schools?

It’s pretty sad. It’s certainly understandable that the emphasis needs to be on reading and math, particularly in the early grades. But science often gets pushed to the background until students reach middle school where there are dedicated science teachers. By then, a lot of kids have written it off as something they can’t understand (which is nonsense).

As the parent of a college undergrad studying science – Geology – I am well aware of the shortage of scientists in America, and in particular women scientists. My daughter’s physics classes have been 98% men. Why do you suppose there is a shortage of American students here who want to study science and in particular, women?

Sadly, I think that there remains an underlying sexism that too often comes through peer pressure as to what should interest girls and boys. And on top of that, I think there’s an even larger anti-science bias in the general culture. A parent would NEVER say, “Don’t worry about reading—I didn’t understand it in school, either.” . . . but you hear that all the time in regard to science.

That’s sadly so true! How does one go about creating science kits for children? That must be both time consuming and challenging.

I worked for an educational toy company that wanted to develop science kits for the retail market. They could get all the components, but they needed a writer. I was the company’s science editor at the time, and when the intended author backed out, they asked me if I could write them . . . and fast. I did, and it was a lot of fun.

What inspired you to write Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids?

I’ve always loved physics and I wanted to give myself a challenge. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, I was convinced that kids needed to know more about this remarkable man.

I am so glad you wrote that book! I interviewed author Kerrie Logan Hollihan, about her Queen Elizabeth I Kids Press book.  (She also wrote Isaac Newton and Physics for Kids and Theodore Roosevelt for Kids.) She informed me she was responsible for gathering all the photos and illustrations for her books. Did you do the same?

Yes, I went through the same lengthy process with my book.

How did you go about finding them?

All of the historic photos I researched and purchased online. With a subject as popular as Einstein, the question was more of cost than availability. A fair number of the photos in the book I took myself during a trip to Switzerland—the schools he attended, his homes, the train station where he waited with the red rose—they’re all still there, and look pretty much the same way today as they did when he was alive.

So you went to Switzerland for the purpose of learning more about Einstein?

Yes, I wanted to get a sense of where Einstein lived, studied, and worked, as well as visit the two Einstein museums in Switzerland. The trip helped my writing more than I expected.

That must have been an amazing experience! What was the process like, researching and then putting together copious amounts of information for the book? How long did that process take?

Start to finish it took about two years—a year and a half researching and reading, then six months writing. So much has been written about Einstein; the more I read the more inconsistencies I found. I was determined to include only those items that I could confirm with three independent sources.

I have so much respect for you for taking the time to make certain your facts were completely accurate. You have a unique and extraordinary talent of writing about a difficult topic in such a way that every reader, young or old can understand it. Your explanations of Relativity and Special Relativity are the first I’ve ever been able to totally comprehend. Does this ability come naturally to you, and do you credit your years of teaching experience?

I have to give my father credit on this one. When I was growing up my dad was working on the Viking mission, the first spacecraft to land on Mars. He would always tell me and my brothers the latest developments, even though we were still in elementary school, but he always made it understandable. The summer the spacecraft was launched, my family lived down in Florida, so we got backstage tours of Cape Canaveral. We even got to play around in the actual Apollo simulators, which by then had been mothballed in an old building. So science has been a part of my life from an early age, and I know it can be made understandable because it was made understandable to me.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Einstein when researching this book?

I was shocked at how brave Einstein was, all through his life. As a kid, he challenged his teachers, and as an adult, he challenged physicists who could have made his career difficult, and sometimes did. He opposed World War I while living in Germany. At a very real risk to his life, he also stood up to Hitler’s followers—again, in Germany—in the lead up to World War II, and he criticized Joseph McCarthy before almost anyone else did.

After reading your book, I realized that many Americans have misconceptions about Einstein. One is that he forgot to eat at times because he was too absent-minded; in fact there was a shortage of food that kept him from eating regularly. Another is that his brain was donated to science, rather it was taken without permission. Did you come across any other misconceptions about the scientist during your research?

One popular misconception was that he was a poor student—he wasn’t. Not until his last few years in college, when he spent a lot of time on his own course of study, did his grades slip.

If you could ask Albert Einstein one question in person, what would it be?

The one question no historian seems to be able to answer: What happened to your daughter Lieserl?

I wondered about that too. What advice do you have for anyone who wishes to write science books for children?

Never talk down to kids—you may have to adjust your vocabulary, but never your tone, which should be one of intellectual respect.

When you’re not writing, what do you most like to do?

Read!

What is your next writing project?

Oddball Michigan.

Jerome, thank you for sharing your interesting background with us and especially for sharing details about the extensive process of writing a non-fiction book for children.  Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids is an extraordinary book. Best of luck with your upcoming Oddball book, and please let us know when your next children’s book is due out. I want to be the first to read it!

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