Ada Lovelace Day– science teachers and Mrs. Findley

I’m participating in Ada Lovelace Day, saluting women in technology and science. I thought about writing about a particular researcher, but I decided instead to single out the often anonymous heroines (and heroes) of science and technology, the teachers who inspire young minds to pursue science careers. Though their names aren’t remembered by Nobel or on manuscripts published in Science and Nature, the contributions of the best of these teachers echo throughout science and technology.

I was far from the first student in my Florida high school who looked up to Mrs. Findley. Even those who hated chemistry liked her. Somehow when she described how atoms knitted into molecules during my sophomore and junior years, I realized that here was the engineering basis of everything alive, a giant chemical puzzle. I liked being pushed, and I like that she made us think.

But she also showed us glimpses of her life outside the classroom. Her son– in elementary school at the time– sometimes sat at her desk during our 7th period AP class. She moonlighted as a caterer, and my first magazine article described how she blended hard science with a nurturing side.

As a senior when I agonized over my future, forces pulled me back into her classroom for advice. She wrote recommendation letters and offered a listening ear as I agonized over college choices and the increasing tug of my logical, chemical side versus my love of language.

Though I wasn’t the first student to ask Mrs. Findley’s advice, I was probably one of the last– at school, anyway. As I struggled with questions of my future, she was planning a return to pharmacy school. Her decision to reinvent herself made a lot more sense to me nearly a decade later, when after 5 years into a chemistry Ph.D. program, I began considering different career paths that still allowed me to think like a scientist. At 17 I  thought that sometime before 22 I would make a magic decision that would fix the career course of the rest of my life. By 27, I understood the need to alter that course. I’d once looked at myself and thought that changing meant acknowledging a personal failure. But her courage to change made her even more of a role model– she was a terrific teacher, and I’m sure she’s a great pharmacist, too.

We need great science teachers to educate, inspire, and lead some minds to patents, papers, and scientific greatness. But it all boils down to making a difference one student at a time. Thanks, Mrs. Findley, for supporting me in ways that I could imagine at the time.


Science museums: lab rats or researchers?

It depends on where you visit, but maybe a little of both.

This NY Times article from last week tries to distill apart the complex reaction of visitors within the vessel of a science museum and sniff the ether of what’s to come.

A science museum is a kind of experiment. It demands the most elaborate equipment: Imax theaters, NASA space vehicles, collections of living creatures, digital planetarium projectors, fossilized bones. Into this mix are thrust tens of thousands of living human beings: children on holiday, weary or eager parents, devoted teachers, passionate aficionados and casual passers-by. And the experimenters watch, test, change, hoping. …

Hoping for what? What are the goals of these experiments, and when do they succeed? Whenever I’m near one of these museological laboratories, I eagerly submit to their probes, trying to find out. The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement.

On a fundamental level the people who work at science museums and who develop exhibits for them are hoping that they entertain visitors so that they come back for a return visit. But having worked on a museum floor in one museum and having developed exhibits for another, I don’t think the analogy completely holds up. Part of it is that I think about these spaces as 3D science communications zones– they inform, educate, inspire. In the best scenarios, a visitor touches– maybe even smells or tastes– as part of the experience. And in those moments, a visitor is a researcher, and I don’t think even the best exhibit developer or staff member is  is a  puppetmaster who can pull all strings.

Regarding the future– in this article Rothstein describes The Exploratorium in San Francisco (a wonderful museum, and I love that there’s an edu suffix on their web address)– as the most recent great shift in museums. And that space lets visitors experiment with exhibit pieces. I particularly remember playing with a DNA transcription puzzle when I visited. And that opportunity to engage allows a visitor to participate in their experience in a novel way.

When I worked at WonderLab while I was a graduate student in Bloomington, Indiana, though, my job included everything from visitor safety to doing science demonstrations. It was a job, but a joy. I was expected and encouraged to engage with the curious (sometimes young) researchers who entered the experimental world for that day. I never thought of those visitors as lab rats, thought perhaps I was an unwitting researcher. I asked them questions, found out what they wanted to know, and looked for answers when I didn’t have them. But at the same time, those conversations with visitors transformed how I think about communicating science.

Who’s the lab rat now?