Science Cheerleader Darlene Cavalier Talks Science Literacy, Poker with Michael Jordan

Science Cheerleader Darlene Cavalier Talks Science Literacy, Poker with Michael Jordan
August 28, 2009, 7:00 am

This is a guest post from Christopher Wink, a co-founder of
Technically Philly, an online news startup that covers technology and
innovation in Philadelphia and is nearly as much fun as cheerleaders.

I
wonder if Darlene Cavalier was as interested in science back in 1992
when Armon Gilliam got her into both post-fight parties after the
much-hyped Holyfield-Holmes bout in Las Vegas.

Because now, the
former 76ers cheerleader, with a Master's degree from the University of
Pennsylvania in science policy, is becoming a fairly vocal advocate for
a science literacy movement. Earlier this month, Science Cheerleader,
the year-old online home for that proposed movement, launched its Brain Makeover initiative, 18 videos highlighting fundamentals of the scientific world you should know.

The
40-year-old Society Hill beauty, who was also a member of Temple
University's cheer squad in the early 1990s, says that most adults
don't know even those basics.

Those 18 concepts were based on
research from George Mason University physics professor James Trefil,
but seeing a better way to bring in new viewers, the videos featured
curret buxom, pom-pom-toting Sixers dancers. That'll bring traffic.

Bridging the sports wonder of The700Level and the scientific curiosity
of Technically Philly, we spoke with Cavalier about the future of
Science Cheerleader, the risk of sexuality in education and her best
stories from three years as a professional cheerleader.

How did Science Cheerleader come about?

The
blog started out as a an idea to share and promote the ideas from a
book I was working on about engagement in science policy. It really
started with a piece I wrote for the Inquirer
about a science debate that wasn't, because voters didn't know it was
happening. The 'Science Cheerleader' title was the brainchild of a a Steve Grasse from Gyro Advertising. A year ago, I started the site to write
the book, and then started
getting paid speaking engagements. It was about all these ideas for
saying 'science is important,' and wanting to give people a way to
participate and learn and know what to learn and why they should learn
it. I'm really passionate about this, about science, and, after,
really, hiding my time as a cheerleader from my colleagues, I found
that I could be the science cheerleader.

OK, why not give us some good stories about being an NBA cheerleader. Please name drop, and feel free to wildly tie science
in there.

I played poker against Michael Jordan one evening. I lost.... I was friends with a close college [and] golf buddy of MJ's, and he invited me
to play poker with him, MJ, and MJ's dad -- who was there but didn't
play -- just the four of us. [I'm] happy to report that not one person even so
much as hinted that it was strip poker. No funny stuff, but
man that was fun.

On at least
one occasion following a game, Charles Barkley held open the hatchback
of my car so I could climb through because climbing through the back
was the only way to enter the wretched clunker. During
the starting line up at one game, the year I was captain, my lost
hairbrush flew out of my pompom right onto the center of the court. One of the
cheerleaders married an assistant coach [who was the] son of the head coach -- although
we were banned from dating players, the front office neglected to
include staff in that clause. Armon Gilliam helped my friend and I gain access to both Holyfield's and Holmes' post fight parties in Vegas. I never crossed any lines with the players -- people may be wondering.
However, my
future husband had season-tickets in the 2nd row so if a 700-level fan
wants to marry an Eagles cheerleader, invest in better seats. Our
dressing room was ridiculously small, kind of gross and thick with
hairspray fumes. I still keep in touch with Howard Eskin. Back then,
Bridget Foy's on South Street was where some of the players, staff and
cheerleaders hung out after home games.

I cheered
at the Vet [for the] football season [of the] Temple Owls, and I traveled all over with the
awesome Temple basketball team back in the days of Mark Macon.

With the
vantage point that I had on the court, I noticed that the players
seemed to know whether a foul shout was good or not before the fans did
-- a split second difference in cheers or jeers. Sometimes, they'd lean
in
to prepare to pat the shooter on the rear before the ball went in the
basket. Last year, I came across this interesting Scientific American post on why players might have an advantage over non players in
predicting the accuracy of basketball tosses. See, science is everywhere, even in the pinkies of NBA players.

So what is Brain Makeover?
It's just one way we want to
use to reach out and bring in new audiences. Using the Sixers
cheerleaders can attract attention and eyeballs, which is what we want,
but this will be just one thing we'll do to increase knowledge and
interest and interaction with science.

So the word is you reached an agreement with Hugh Douglas to shoot a video. How did that happen?

Another
former 76ers cheerleader now works at NFL Films, and is pretty bright
herself, and so I told her to keep her ears out for any possible
partnerships or any players who might be interested. She mentioned it
to Hugh Douglas who was really interested, and she gave me his cell
phone number and we started talking from there. 

In high school, us stat-heads and geeks took solace in thinking we
were smart. You keep showing hot science nuts -- former and current
cheerleaders, professors and now a science interested defensive end.
What gives?

I'd love to know who started the long-running rumor
that science, math and engineering are for geeks and that good-looking
people can't be taken seriously. Have you ever seen Philadelphia Inquirer's
talented science reporter, Faye Flam? Hot, hot, hot physics major from
California Institute of Technology. And wait until you see my interview
with Hugh Douglas. That guy knows science. The women, and forth-coming
men, featured on the Sexy Scientists and Engineers Flickr page on my
site are formally trained scientists and engineers. I am not a
scientist but does that mean I can't learn some important fundamentals,
become science literate, and participate in science activities and
science policy discussions? I'll answer that. Nope. And there are
millions of people like me in the U.S.

Does the sexuality devalue the learning?
The cheerleaders are just one part. It's rare that Fox national news and the Chronicle of Higher Education [and the Toronto Star] are going to run the same story at the same time. But, you know, they
did. It's because this is something people are struggling with and they
have for a long time. This is what works in America. We need to do
everything we can to bring people into this learning. It's getting
attraction from eyeballs that wouldn't
turn to a science Web site otherwise, and that's good, no matter what.
So we'll keep doing what works to educate people about science, its
policy and anything that it involves.

Christopher
Wink is a co-founder of Technically Philly, a news site that covers
technology and innovation in Philadelphia. Read more of the interview
here
.

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