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Engaging STEM Education from the Front Lines

Larry Gladney

Larry Gladney is Professor of Physics, Astronomy, and Education. He carries appointments as the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor for Faculty Excellence and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences and a secondary appointment as Professor of Education in the Higher Education division of the Penn Graduate School of Education. He is also the former Director and Principal Investigator of the Penn Science Teacher Institute (PSTI) and former Chair of the Penn Faculty Senate. Dr. Gladney focuses his research at the interface between experimental particle physics and cosmology where we attempt to understand the basic connections between matter, energy, space and time. His most recent work has involved the planning and simulation of a future ground-based mission to understand the origin and nature of dark energy.
Dr. Gladney also led the PSTI team that carried out the Master's degree programs for high school chemistry teachers and middle school science teachers. The goal of the PSTI to improve the learning of middle-school and high school students in mathematics and science, especially in urban schools, by improving the content knowledge and pedagogical skills of teachers involved awarding Master's degrees to about 30 teachers each year. This required an intensive three year program of
specially designed classes in chemistry, physics, biology, earth and space sciences, and science pedagogy. In addition, Dr. Gladney leads an Academically Based Service Learning course that links teaching and research for Penn undergraduates serving local area high schools.

Q: You have been participating in STEM projects for several years. Can you share some highlights on how things have changed, e.g., with the students attitudes to science and math or with what the students know, for the better or worse over the years?

Gladney: Student attitudes towards science and math have not changed over the years in my opinion. What has changed is the enormously larger number of distracters: cell phones, personal media, etc. and, in urban centers, the increasing despair coming from steadily decreasing resources. Students feel even more that that they are being cheated and hence no one really cares or believes that they can succeed in getting a good education. Its independent of STEM but it affects students more where historical stereotypes already abound.
The other thing I've noticed is more emphasis by young people on "why it matters". There seems to be more empathy for doing something in life that helps people. Possibly the despair is relieved by thinking that you want to work on something that makes a difference. I try to specifically point out how physics contributes to improving life in all my outreach projects now.

Q: For other professors out there who might be interested in becoming engaged in more STEM-based outreach activities, what advice would you give them in terms of the stage in one's career to participate in such activities or in terms of leveraging university resources?

Gladney: You have more resources to command and more respect among your peers if you have established your research credentials before making your outreach widely known. No one should wait though! The need is too great and you can make your contributions along smaller scales and still be very effective. Mentoring a single promising student can be*the* difference in their lives. So many people who are talented and gave up on their dreams report, upon reflection, that they never once heard anyone tell them that they were good and would succeed if they just kept at it. No one told them that help would come when really needed but that persistence was the only deciding factor that you simply have to have. Lack of this kind of advice is especially prevalent among the physical sciences. It need not be career-crippling to give this kind of encouragement and share your personal journey at any stage of your academic career. Wait until you are established with a permanent position before deciding to run a huge program though.

Q: Normally when we talk about STEM outreach, the focus is on the entire K-12 school range. From your experience, is there an ideal age or grade group or narrower range than K-12 that you feel could best take advantage and benefit from most STEM outreach activities?

Gladney: Research shows that particular groups decide at certain academic stages to give up on an image of themselves as succeeding in STEM. Typically 7th grade is a crucial year for females for example. I don't think there is an ideal age where any particular effort will make a huge difference though. It's important to establish a complete pipeline that offers support and guidance throughout the kindergarten-through-tenure progression to make a *big* difference. We lose people at all stages and its just as tragic to lose them at 7th grade as it is just after graduate school. While any individual working at outreach should find their "comfort range" in age or academic stage, the emphasis nationally has to be on increasing outreach throughout the pipeline from students to working scientists and engineers.

Q: Have you found specific areas or subjects of STEM that students from communities that are typically underrepresented in science, engineering, and math tend to gravitate to?

Gladney: I only know physics and a bit of astronomy so I can't say that I'm qualified to answer. What's important is that you show the relevance of what you do to what students own personal interests happen to be. If they are interested in music, point out how physics and math play into understanding sound and how that can be used to determine why instruments generate sounds that are pleasing and not so pleasing. If they are interested in medicine or law point out the intersections of technology and basic science and how that plays into improving, or at least changing, how we live. Astronomy appeals to a great many just because we all see the night sky but generally the public doesn't know the appeal of other subjects just because they don't see the connections to every day things they deal with.

Q: If you had the opportunity to speak with a millionaire for an hour who is interested in financially supporting America to produce more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, where would you ask the millionaire to spend his/her money in order have the greatest impact?

Gladney: Make it a billionaire and it’s worth an hour! In all honesty though, the greatest thing for propelling more people into STEM is more promotion of STEM practitioners as role models for young people. We must always have scientists, engineers and mathematicians doing research as their primary activity, but I'd love to see public outreach considered as essential as say publish-or-perish. It would be great to reward effective outreach (this includes teaching by the way) in the way that we do effective research with grants, recognition, and academic career advancement. I don't know that money is the answer for how to get this change of culture but I don't think it could hurt to have the next billionaire giving out multi-million dollar prizes award them to STEM people who have made advancements in science *and* shared the journey with the public in a way that gets them to appreciate the advancement as opposed to rewarding only those whose work is too esoteric for the public to understand. There are enough prizes for scientists! What's needed is more creativity in getting people engaged in how science is done. This would require a whole new paradigm in figuring out how to gauge the quality of outreach and education, making the necessary peer-review structure, etc. It would be a massive undertaking but I strongly suspect we can do it by making the objectives concrete and rewarding people for achieving them just as we do for difficult but traditional scientific problems.

Q: Today, you are a successful physicist at an Ivy league institution. Can you point back to a particular event or key events in your life that you can say honestly helped lead you to where you are now?

Gladney: Certainly having the opportunity to work with a particle physics research group from freshman year on helped a lot with my confidence and in developing the habits of thinking like a physicist. Crawling on top of, under and around a 3-story detector at the world's most powerful accelerator was heady stuff for a teenager! Being given responsibility that required me to get things done because other people depended on it was also a strong focusser of my time and developer of my work ethic. My first lesson in physics, at the point I was hired as a freshman knowing very little about physics, was that the person who keeps coming back to the problem is the one who succeeds and gets the next job. Perseverance is irreplaceable. Many other lessons came as well and I'm sure I was helped by people whose contributions I still probably don't know, but the lesson about "never giving up" (psychologists refer to it as "grit" now) kept being repeated at every stage of my career. We often say to young people "Don't give up on your dreams" but the best way for them to learn it is for adults to model it. As I grew in physics, I saw many people taking on impossible tasks and then somehow completing them. I just followed in their footsteps.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)