Jeff Terry is a Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology with a PhD in Chemical Physics. He’s also a tinkerer, creator, and maker. Jeff plans and teaches creative, innovative courses that inspire students to connect the technology they use in everyday life to their underlying scientific principles.
Jayshree Seth: 92% of parents want their kids to know more about science. But over a third believe only geniuses can have a career in the field! How does science education need to evolve to reach tomorrow’s scientists? We’ll explore possible solutions on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to episode 3 of Science Champions, (brought to you by 3M/a 3M podcast). I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, (Chief Science Advocate at 3M).
Last episode, we talked about how to inspire children to pursue a career in science. This time, we’re focusing in on science education in schools. How can science teachers impress children who have supercomputers in their pockets, with free access to all the world’s knowledge — and an infinite amount of distractions?
To explore this tricky question, I’m joined by champion of science Jeff Terry. Welcome, Jeff. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your scientific background?
Jeff Terry: Hello, I'm Jeff Terry, I'm a physics professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. My research is predominantly in the materials used in energy production, and so, we try to develop better materials that have distinct properties for nuclear energy for battery storage for solar conversion of light to electricity or big focus areas.
I am really lucky; I get paid to do a lot of outreach and a lot of creative classes. So between the two things I have a really nice job. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, because I’m our department’s internet and social media coordinator, so I get to interact with thousands of people on Twitter, for example, discussing science and answering questions that they have and asking some of my own questions. Then in the classroom I get to teach computational physics, so I get to teach students how they use computers to solve some of these advanced problems. And as part of that, we do things like programming Arduinos, we do things like programming iPhones, nad we work through how to solve problems that haven’t been solved. So I’m fortunate that I get to do these things and get paid for it, and I love doing it.
Jayshree Seth: Jeff, how much importance do you believe the next generation places on science?
Jeff Terry: So, the next generation is actually quite technologically advanced when you think about it; most of them have wonderful ability to immediately start interacting with things like iPhones iPads and it's really an incredible change that I've observed over my life. These were things that were science fiction when I first started yet almost all of today's kids can interact and operate in many cases better than I can now. So, they have a tremendous advantage in interacting with technology and technology is all based on science it's a great thing.
Jayshree Seth: They definitely have more access to technology, but do you think that inspires curiosity? Or do they take it for granted?
Jeff Terry: so, the question I always wonder about is, how many of them will translate this technological if that they have and go into trying to develop their own new devices for the future whatever those may be, and I know we have a tremendous number of students who come in who have that desire, so I think the future is looking pretty good from that standpoint. Whether or not my generation will fund them to allow them to do it, that's also an open question.
Jayshree Seth: Speaking of being underfunded — let’s talk about science education. From your perspective as a teacher, has student interest in science changed over the years?
Jeff Terry: I think you have about the same percentage of people who are really interested in science and are really driven to pursue it now that there were before. They have maybe more opportunities to do it now and that's a good thing, so there are a lot more of these research experiences for undergraduates there are a lot more summer programs for high school students. So, I see them pursuing it more from a younger age than people of my generation did because we just didn't have the same number of opportunities. But I think the overall interest in the number of people who continue on and get degrees in science based on their initial interests is probably about the same. There’s still a large dropout rate, I think, for people who start in science and engineering, and they don’t complete. They end up moving on to other areas of study.
Jayshree Seth: So the real problem is keeping kids interested in science, then? How does education need to evolve to hold that interest?
Jeff Terry: Well, I think there are a lot of problems right now with how we teach science and engineering and it's something that greatly concerns me. We teach science and engineering even though everybody has and iPhone in their pocket that knows every conceivable formula and is direct linked to Wikipedia things like that with great explanations of most of the sub formulas as if it were 100 years ago, and I don't think that's necessarily beneficial. So, for example, we still make students memorize a lot of things. And so, the question is, do you really need to memorize how to solve a second order differential equation anymore? I would make the argument that that doesn't help you much because you can always look up how to solve it very quickly.
And my concern is always, do we by doing this make everybody go through the same steps that I had to do when I was a student, do we take out people who might be more inclined to come up with a creative solution to a problem? And I don't necessarily think this is a good thing because all the problems that I do anymore in my career don't have closed form solution - I don't get y equals X2 anymore; everything I solve is done numerically.
Jayshree Seth: So these kind of mechanical, mathematical formulas and calculations, you’re saying if we leave them up to the machines, we can lower the barrier to entry and keep kids engaged?
Jeff Terry: My concern is should we focus so deep on some of these complex mathematical areas instead of getting more creative students in and letting them to use these tools like computers and iPhones because they are very good a themt? You know, something that many of them now have seen since they were a few years old and have had these devices with them their entire lives. I don't see a good reason why we're not using them to make sure that creative people in addition to mathematical experts pursue degrees to completion in science and engineering; I would like to see more of that.
Jayshree Seth: How can we make science more relatable, or more appealing to these creative minds you’re talking about?
Jeff Terry: I truly think it would be much more relatable if we cut back on some of the historical requirements and changed a little bit to have more modern methods of especially computation included. I think it would I think that's a very important part of education - the ability to explore different areas. I was very fortunate when I came along as a student that was something that was very much pushed both my undergrad and graduate career - they wanted you to think about problems differently and I think we've closed ranks up a little bit since I went to school and made it a little bit harder to do, there's a lot less freedom, programs are structured a bit more and that's probably not a good thing we want to do.
We really have to make sure we keep our curiosity and we have to make sure that we encourage students to be curious. And so also hope we work on our education system a little bit to make sure that we don't turn everybody into standardized robots; we want people to be different and we want to encourage diversity. We need people who do think differently. So, these are areas I hope we do much better in the future than we've done now.
Jayshree Seth: How are you seeing educators pushing boundaries to make science more intriguing and inspiring for young learners?
Jeff Terry: one of the greatest things I think about all these educational summer programs and research experiences for undergraduates these programs like this actually let students get experience in what science and engineering is actually like, and that is just a wonderful thing and I hope we can keep these programs funded as science budgets shrink going forward into the future. Because there are two different skill sets that you really need to succeed science and engineering; the first one is obviously the ability to solve problems that have already been solved, so as you go through school high school college you're regurgitating information that we already know the answers to, you know, you learn about what happens if we drop a ball and a feather in a vacuum? they both hit the ground at the same.
These are things we know and the problem is no one pays you to do that as a professional - as a professional in science and engineering you get paid to solve the problems that haven’t been solved, you get paid to discover new materials for solar cells new batteries you get paid to solve problems with a production line, things that people don't know the answers to. But we focus so much in education on solving problems that are already solved that sometimes we neglect the second part of that education teaching people how to solve the problems that haven’t been solved, and this is something that getting younger students involved with is really good.
So, if you go to elementary schools now you'll see students doing environmental projects doing work with crops and things like that restoring wetlands behind schools. Those are all difficult problems that don't necessarily have a solution advance and we have to figure these things out. And you get the same experience in these [are used] in some of the summer programs where you actually get a problem that you have to solve.
Jayshree Seth: It does feel like kids today have fewer open-ended problems to solve. I have heard educators say their students seem more likely to want to look up the correct answer, rather than thinking through a process.
Jeff Terry: And so, it's this learning by doing it, troubleshooting, that education has lacked for a while. Now, used to get this because people used to work on cars in their spare time, they would repair their television sets. But these are all things that no one does anymore. When I was a boy and my T.V. broke, you opened up the cabinet you looked for what tube was broken you pulled the tubes that weren't lit you took them to the grocery store where there was a tube tester and you plug them in and if the tester said the tube was bad you bought a replacement you went in and you repair your T.V.
Now, when your T.V. was surface mount electronics goes out you don't even take it to a repair person you just replace your T.V. get a new one and the broken one goes out in the trash. So, these troubleshooting skills weren't taught for a long period of time and they weren't learned at home. So, it's nice to see these programs where you actually get some hands-on experience to learning the 2nd part of the equation, you know, learning how to solve problems that you don't know the answer to.
Jayshree Seth: So you would say tinkering is one of the ways kids can get into science? Give them something they can take apart, see how it works, and put it back together?
Jeff Terry: I think that is a very big part of it; when you look at this you see the number of people who are participating in things like Maker Fairs is really impressive to me. The tools that students now have available, these Arduinos, the Raspberry Pis, these are incredible devices that could be used for data collection programming robotics, things like this didn't really exist 20-years ago. And so, the ability to tinker now has really become so easy and relatively cheap to deal with; you can buy some of these tools that people are using to make wearables and have clothes that light up for under $50 for whole kits to build things.
That is really a nice thing and I hope more parents start buying those for kids because, and in fact, learning how to tinker was a lost art and it's good that it's coming back and making a comeback. Because I got to do things like that; repairing TVs and working on cars. Those were things we did as a hobby because we only had seven television stations, and most of the time there wasn’t anything worth watching on. So instead of sitting in front of the TV, you built stuff, or you took things apart and you fixed them. And my siblings didn’t really have that. They grew up several years later than me, and by that time you had cable tv, mtv, and you stopped repairing things. Tube testers disappeared from grocery stores, people stopped working on cars as much.
Then the group, probably right now I would say 14-15 year olds, now have all these wonderful new tools they can tinker with, and it really has made a difference in a lot of cases. A lot of kids come into our classes already knowing how to program, in things like Python, it’s really beneficial. So I’m actually hopeful for the future, I really am, if my generation doesn’t screw it up for them.
Jayshree Seth: Absolutely; it’s inspiring to see kids experimenting with technology instead of just passively taking it in. Of course, speaking of kids and technology, of course we have to talk about social media, too. What do you think about social networking? Is it good for these young potential scientists, or bad, or a little bit of both?
Jeff Terry: I think social media is really good for science; the number of top-notch scientists who have accounts of Twitter there are Nobel Prize winners on Twitter, it really is a great resource because you can always ask a question, not everybody will answer but there are tremendous number of people willing to engage with nonscientists and not experts on Twitter, and so, if you're really interested in the subject you can learn a lot by quickly contacting an expert. So, I think that's another big plus for the future.
And frankly, if somebody would have told me ten years ago that there’d be “cougar or not,” identify whether this animal caught on video in somebody’s security camera was a cougar or a cat or whatever other type of cat there is, I wouldn’t have believed it, that there would be that many people discussing these things about science. You have Bad Identification — insect identification, what is this insect? What is this snake? Who could have imagined such a thing when I was in high school? When I was in high school, if you wanted to know what an insect was, you had to go to the library, page through books on insects, because you couldn’t get ahold of any experts. It’s just incredible the resources that can be brought to bear on a problem now.
The last funding proposal I submitted was the first one that I’ve ever submitted with somebody I’ve never met in person. I’ve only interacted with them via Twitter and email. So it’s incredible, because had I not met this person on Twitter, I would not have had the opportunity to work with them. I just never would have known that they existed, but we interacted on Twitter and we ended up writing a proposal together to work together.
Jayshree Seth: So assuming we can nurture and develop a new generation of inspired, creative, tinkerers to take up a career in science: What do you think we will achieve with science in your lifetime?
Jeff Terry: Well, I have to start off by first saying we've achieved a tremendous amount in science over my lifetime - I was alive before anyone had walked on the moon and the downside to this is no one has walked on the moon since my children were born. So, the interesting thing about science is we move forward and we sometimes take steps back, and it would be nice if we could continue to progress, but I don't know if we always can and I don't know if it's always even desirable to continue progressing in every conceivable area.
So, I have grown up in this era of science fiction where things that didn't exist now exist, some things that we were able to do we can't do anymore. And I hope that as we bring more creative people into science by changing the education process we make it cheaper and easier to continue accomplishing new things. And by certain that will always be the case no, and unfortunately, we have been hitting walls lately — it is very hard for us to build large projects, if we look at projects like the superconducting supercollider we're killing, the new budget from the presidents what to zero out the budget for an Advanced Space Telescope.
These are certainly concerns that would make it harder and harder to continue advancing our knowledge of science and engineering. I hope that as people continue on and get more and more creative and come up with creative solutions that will allow us to continue advancing our knowledge in a way that's more affordable for society because society can't spend all its money on science and technology. So, it's an interesting problem, with infinite amounts of money science can progress quite far. But we'll never see for now the amounts of money again in science.
So, what will we be able to do, well, I hope in a minimum we're able to end energy poverty in society so we can bring everyone in the world up to a decent standard of living and I hope we can do this sustainably so we don't actually end up hurting our planet or do it at the expense of other species that exists. I hope we can end famine I don't see a good reason for us to allow anyone around the world to starve with the technologies that we have with genetically modified organisms - there really isn't a good excuse for not being able to produce enough food for everybody.
So those are two areas I hope to see going away in the future; I hope no one knows famine and no one knows energy poverty.
Jayshree Seth: Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts with me, Jeff.
Science has advanced an unbelievable amount in my lifetime — but science education may not be keeping pace. To inspire and nurture the next generation of scientists, we need more flexibility, more creativity, and to ignite the curiosity that drives all scientific exploration
Thank you for listening to Science Champions (sponsored by 3M). Next episode, I’ll be joined by Dianna Cowern, also known as “Physics Girl,” a science educator with over 800,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. We’ll discuss the intersection of science, popular culture and society.
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