Improving STEM Education: It’s About Time

The following is a guest post from Robert Wilson ’89, a former 3rd grade science teacher at Bryan Independent School District’s Blue Ribbon-recognized Johnson Elementary School. Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in education curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M and longtime science educator, currently is Director of STEM Classroom Products for Galxyz’s Blue Apprentice, a new app that is putting the interactive adventure into elementary science and making international headlines, including for a recent partnership with Popular Science to create an entire line of game-based K6 science resources.

Although Wilson may no longer be head of the class at Johnson, his heart clearly remains with his students and singularly invested in their best interests, particularly with regard to the S in STEM.

(Credit: SAHMReviews.com)

(Credit: SAHMReviews.com)

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Sometimes we put too much faith in a system without understanding all that is involved. I support our teachers and administrators and respect the job that they do for our children every day. However, the legislative constraints in which they work are having a negative impact on our students’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. If we are to improve STEM education as a nation, we have to take a long hard look at what is happening within classrooms at the elementary level concerning the amount of time that teachers are teaching science, along with topic selection.

Do you have a child in elementary school? How much science instructional time are they receiving?

planets

Food for thought follows, with accompanying citations:

Blank, R. K. (2013). Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap? Science Education, 97(6), 830-847.

“The recommendations for improvement of science education from the NRC indicate that the elementary years are an important time to capture students’ interest and motivation for science study and that time for science instruction is critical (NRC, 2007, 2012). A review of some 150 studies of children’s attitudes toward science found that interest in science for some children tends to decline from age 11 onward (Osborne, 2003), and thus elementary grades instruction in science provides a key time for building interest.”

“The current federal requirement of annual reporting on adequate yearly progress in mathematics and reading for all students produces a strong incentive for schools to focus more instructional time on mathematics and reading, which can result in less class time for science, social studies, and other subjects.”

Sandholtz, J. H., & Ringstaff, C. (2014). Inspiring instructional change in elementary school science: The relationship between enhanced self-efficacy and teacher practices. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25(6), 729-751.

“In contrast to daily instruction in mathematics and reading/language arts, only 20 percent of classes in kindergarten through grade 3 (K-3) receive science instruction on most days, and many classes receive science instruction only a few days a week or during some weeks of the year (Banilower et al., 2013). In the past decade, the amount of instructional time spent on science has declined rather than increased. In 2000, K-3 teachers in the U.S. spent an average of 23 min a day teaching science (Weiss et al., 2001), but in 2012, K-3 teachers spent an average of 19 min on science instruction (Banilower et al., 2013).”

Ness, D., Farenga, S. J., Shah, V., & Garofalo, S. G. (2016). Repositioning science reform efforts: Four practical recommendations from the field. Improving Schools, 1365480216650312.

“Combined, prior science education reform efforts have failed to recognize the impact from the environmental press on learning. More recently, the constraints with which teachers have grappled are increased pressure – resulting, in part, from time constraints for assessments — and an overwhelming focus on mathematics and literacy at the elementary levels (Farenga et al., 2010; Johnson et al., 2008; Ravitch, 2013). As a result of high-stakes testing, too little time is allocated toward the instruction and assessment of the science curriculum. Teachers spend more time on mathematics and reading at the elementary level to fulfill requirements on these exams. As a result, science learning, knowledge, and motivation suffer (Anderson, 2012, p. 119). Suggestions to improve and increase content should be proposed by individuals who have spent a considerable amount of time working or teaching in K to 12 classrooms — a task that might provide a better understanding of the environmental constraints that are found in the K to 12 setting.”

This might give you a little more perspective on why I left the science classroom to work for Galxyz, Inc. Technology is rapidly changing how we educate our children. Blue Apprentice is a fun way to learn science and increases the amount of time students spend focused on STEM — time the students are not receiving in the classroom.

sower_harvest

Observational History

Texas A&M University took its right to wonder cosmic in 2004, becoming a founding partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope and officially launching a first-rate astronomy program that was recognized in 2015 with selection to the prestigious Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

Although the program instantly became established on the international research scene with that $1.25 million lead gift from Texas businessman and global energy pioneer George P. Mitchell ’40, it hadn’t truly arrived in one universally critical aspect: academics. That big moment came earlier this year when the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) unanimously approved Texas A&M’s graduate degree program in astronomy.

Texas A&M astronomer and program director Nick Suntzeff was present at that meeting and recapped the historic event for his colleagues in the following email message capturing his stream-of-consciousness euphoria and heartfelt gratitude for all those who worked so hard to pave the way for an astronomically brighter future in Aggieland and across the Lone Star State. I’ll let Nick take it from here!

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From: nsuntzeff
Subject: Astronomy MS and PhD
Date: April 28, 2016 at 7:21:02 PM CDT
To: “Astrophysics@TAMU”
Cc: Lara Suntzeff, Jeruska Vladislavic

Dear All,

Today, at around 2:30 p.m., the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted unanimously to allow Texas A&M, through the Dept of Physics and Astronomy, to grant MS and PhD degrees in Astronomy. We are now the second public university in Texas to have a PhD program in astronomy. The ability to grant these degrees at A&M will be effective in only a few days. There are forms to be sent to the Provost, but that is all pro forma because she supports the program.

The THECB did not debate the program — they adopted it without discussion and gave it a unanimous vote. Two of the THECB members looked at me and smiled, obviously pleased with the outcome.

This was the last big piece in the creation of an astronomy program that was started ten years ago.

There are a number of people to thank. George Welch and Ed Fry, as department heads, have supported and encouraged the creation of the program and degrees. Dean Joe Newton also has been a tireless supporter of our efforts, and deserves our thanks. Provost Karan Watson, who knew how the THECB worked, paced the application process to allow all details be sorted out with staff at the THECB, such that there was little doubt that the program would be approved. Joe Pettibon, the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs in the Provost’s office, was our point person in the final application process.

Astronomy before I came was headed by an Astronomy Committee who were committed to bringing astronomy to A&M. The 2003 members were Fry, [Richard] Arnowitt, [George] Kattawar, [Robert] Webb, and [Roland] Allen. They shared this vision for astronomy at our university. In addition, David Hyland, a professor of Aerospace Engineering in the College of Engineering, gave support through his college to our program in the early days, and was instrumental in the initial negotiations for our participation in the GMT back in 2004. These were our advocates for the GMT telescope.

We should not forget the backing of the whole department who have allowed our program to be carved out of the Physics Department, and agreed to add the nine faculty we now have in just ten years. We had many supporters, but I would like to call out the early support of Peter McIntyre, Chris Pope, Dimitri Nanopoulos, Bob Tribble, Bob Webb, Alexei Belyanin, Lewis Ford, Tom Adair, Don Carona, James White, Nelson Duller, and Ron Bryan. None of you know this, but it was Alexei Sokolov who led the first stages of the remodeling of the Munnerlyn Building.

The Texas A&M Astronomy Committee convened the Freedman Committee of 2003: Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Tod Lauer, Charles Townes, David Cline, and Craig Wheeler. I bet you did not know that we had two Nobel Laureates who recommended the formation of the Astronomy Program! After the establishment in 2006, Townes came to A&M to celebrate the beginning of the Astronomy Program, as did Steven Weinberg, who also lent his support for our program. Although I don’t know, I bet it was Marlan Scully who convinced them of the need of astronomy at A&M.

The Presidents of A&M — [Robert] Gates, [Elsa] Murano, [Bowen] Loftin, [Mark] Hussey, and now [Michael] Young — have all supported the creation of astronomy here at A&M.

We also should thank George Djorgovski, Ed Olszewski, and Rocky Kolb for their time on the 2015 visiting committee who gave us a glowing recommendation for the degree program.

A few other external astronomers helped us by writing letters and attending early conferences — Adam Riess, Bob Kirshner, Alex Filippenko, Brian Schmidt, and Geoff Marcy.

We have been greatly helped by our friends at UT-Austin and McDonald Observatory, especially David Lambert and Dean Mary Ann Rankin, and Taft Armandroff continues their help for us.

It goes almost without saying that it is Lucas [Macri] who shepherded the application over, what was it, six years? — whose absolutely stunning document detailing the need for astronomy at A&M convinced our betters in the administration, [the Texas A&M System Board of] Regents, and now the THECB. The word “stunning” was not mine; it was used by Allan Mitchie, who was the staff member of the THECB who coordinated and ultimately became an advocate for the application.

Finally, the Mitchell Family — George and Sheridan — have supported our efforts in so many ways. We would not have any program without the vision of George and unwavering encouragement from Sheridan.

I am sure I have left out names, and I apologize in advance.

cheers, nick

P.S. I attach photos from the panel meeting at Cook’s Branch in October 2003.

(From left:) George P. Mitchell '40, Ed Fry, Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Olga Kocharovskaya, Cynthia Mitchell, Tod Lauer and Debbie Fry. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

(From left:) George P. Mitchell ’40, Ed Fry, Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Olga Kocharovskaya, Cynthia Mitchell, Tod Lauer and Debbie Fry. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)


Cynthia and George P. Mitchell '40. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

Cynthia and George P. Mitchell ’40. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)


George P. Mitchell '40 and Robert Kirshner. (Credit: Edward S. Fry).

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Robert Kirshner. (Credit: Edward S. Fry).


George P. Mitchell '40 and David Lambert. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

George P. Mitchell ’40 and David Lambert. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

"I just like this picture of Stephen Hawking and friend -- meeting of the minds?" an excited Suntzeff quips. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

“I just like this picture of Stephen Hawking and friend — meeting of the minds?” an excited Suntzeff quips. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

Expanding Y[our] Horizons

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson has made a career out of science education, outreach and inquiry, inspiring countless school children across this state and nation to learn more about math and science and the many related possibilities through hands-on projects and presentations.

This past Saturday, he made his third consecutive appearance at Expanding Your Horizons, an all-day, workshop-structured conference for 6th grade girls intended to open new doors of interest and opportunity while also encouraging them to stay actively involved in math and science. Beyond making them aware of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career opportunities, the annual event also provides the girls with a chance to meet female role models in related fields.

For his part, Craig says he learns as much as he teaches — typical, given the astute observer and encourager that he is. As the ultimate lifelong learner, he has agreed to share his educational observations via the Texas A&M Science blog in hopes of inspiring a broader audience if not horizon.

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Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) research scientist Craig Wilson makes science simple for his "Expanding Your Horizons" audience by outlining his proven two-step method: observe and ask questions. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) research scientist Craig Wilson makes science simple for his Expanding Your Horizons audience by outlining his proven two-step method: observe and ask questions. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Expanding Your Horizons . . . better known by its acronym “EYH.” You might imagine an expansive horizon, the sun sinking in the west with a myriad of colors filling the sky before darkness descends. A lone rider is riding away into that sunset in silhouette. Who is the rider? From our infatuation with Westerns, one assumes it is a cowboy. But why not a cowgirl? Perhaps it is she who has just saved The West? Why not?

EYH is designed to change that mindset from both without and within. The “Your” refers to 6th grade girls. The “Horizons” is not girls seeing a sunset but seeing science as a possible career. The “Expanding” is encouraging and helping them to look up, to look out and to look above and beyond. Just as the Orion spacecraft is looking to one day take humans to Mars, to break the shackles of low-Earth orbit where we have been trapped since 1972, so it is that EYH wants to help girls to go in science where too few girls have gone before.

In addition to being a man of many travels, Wilson boasts as rich a collection of stories as he does related props, including this preserved sample of elephant dung -- a souvenir from time spent in Africa. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

In addition to being a man of many travels, Wilson boasts as rich a collection of stories as he does related props, including this preserved sample of elephant dung — a souvenir from time spent in Africa. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 24 percent of workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Why is that? These girls know nothing of this, although their parents might. There are various theories, but that is unimportant on this particular Saturday. The question to be asked is, “Why have these young girls come today?” I did not ask, but I suspect that it may be because of parental interest, for each has to come with a chaperone. They have to be brought to the College of Science on the Texas A&M University campus, and 153 have made it today. This is good, because this means that their parents see this as important. They are giving their girls options. They are helping to expand their daughters’ horizons.

Today, what do the girls look like? They look interested. They look interesting. They look like potential scientists. I start my first session. They do not sit back and spectate. They participate. This is good, because this is half the battle. The other half is for them to ask questions. This is difficult, because this is not easy for girls or boys. It used to be second nature. It came naturally when they were younger. It is in the nature of scientists to inquire, to observe and to then ask questions about what they have seen. That is the way science is done, and I try to model that and have the girls see that science is much more than book learning. It is about active engagement. It can be fun. But they have to see that it is important and that they can do it as well as if not better than anyone else.

Wilson explained that peanuts are a standard astronaut snack in space because they are compact and provide lots of energy. EYH participants learned how to calculate a peanut's calorific value by setting fire to it, heating a paper cup of water in the process. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Wilson explained that peanuts are a standard astronaut snack in space because they are compact and provide lots of energy. EYH participants learned how to calculate a peanut’s calorific value by setting fire to it, heating a paper cup of water in the process. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

I run three sessions. At the end of each, I am encouraged. These girls have what it takes. They have the right stuff to become scientists. Sadly, not enough girls or boys see it that way. We are not getting enough students to pursue science in college. The STEM fields need them. The world needs them.

The world needs answers. She is beset by problems. We need problem solvers to step up and help her. Why not these girls? They have stepped up today. They have given up a Saturday for science. Today, they have expanded their minds. They have seen that they are not alone. Each has taken a small step for a girl but a giant leap towards a scientific horizon that they may have thought was beyond their reach.

This Texas A&M College of Science program is a small step in the right direction. It tells each girl, “You can EYH.” Yours and ours.

Learning

Building Astronomy in Texas

This weekend, the Texas A&M Astronomy Group will host the statewide Building Astronomy in Texas (BAT) workshop within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy on the Texas A&M University campus. At present, the tentative RSVP list includes more than 80 astronomers, students and research staff representing 18 different Texas universities.

Arguably a sweet spotlight by any standard, for us and the state, but I contend it’s merely an extrapolation of what the Texas A&M astronomers do best: learn about and from each other and then use that new knowledge to grow as people, as a program and as a profession.

One doesn’t have to look far to find a relevant case in point if not precursor: August 28. Apparently, it’s an annual tradition for the ASTRO group to host an all-day symposium the Friday before the fall semester starts. It’s organized and chaired by postdoctoral students, and each member of the group — from tenured professors to undergraduates — has the opportunity to give a 10-minute talk on his or her current research. This year, they ended the day with a new tradition: a group-wide dinner at Darren DePoy and Jennifer Marshall’s house. Check out this recap video for additional information on the symposium and further insight via first-person interviews:

When I was explaining to my husband about what they had planned for that day, from the postdoc-chaired symposium and group-wide presenting opportunity to the family-style dinner (not at a restaurant, mind you, but at the deputy director’s house), I said it reminded me of exactly how Bob Johnson –- er, make that Dr. Robert E. Johnson, AIA — treated me during one of my past professional lives in the Texas A&M College of Architecture. Bob himself interviewed and later hired me as a staff member in the CRS Center, established in 1990 by legendary Houston architecture firm CRS (Caudill Rowlett Scott) as one of the then-seven research centers and institutes within Texas A&M Architecture. I knew nothing of Bob nor the field, yet from Day 1, he gave me full access to every facet of his operation, from the financials to the server records to the CRS firm archives. I saw exactly what he saw, because he saw us as equals. What an empowering view! Yes, it’s a calculated management risk, but wow, the rewards that can be realized for all parties when that trust is there, real and reciprocated.

The Texas A&M ASTRO group is there, and it’s as powerfully compelling and exciting to me as learning about the historic rise of another Texas juggernaut on the architectural scene was, then and now. One resulted in two chapters in a book, and the sky’s the limit for the other. Take it from someone who didn’t know a lick about architecture or astronomy.

Perfection to the Power of Two

I’ve long been impressed by the caliber of Texas A&M Science faculty and staff, professionally and personally. I guess that pretty much applies to their children, too.

Texas A&M astronomer Kevin Krisciunas recently alerted me to the fact that College Station High School’s Woody Wang, the son of Texas A&M astronomer Lifan Wang and Yuanjing Xu, scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT. An accomplished violinist (check him out here as a soloist his freshman year in 2012), Woody is also captain of his Brazos Valley Storm Hockey Club team, which he says is recruiting members (hint, hint…).

Woody Wang (Credit: Woody Wang, Facebook.)

Woody Wang (Credit: Woody Wang, Facebook.)

Woody Wang (Credit: Woody Wang, Facebook.)

Woody Wang (Credit: Woody Wang, Facebook.)

When I texted Dean of Science Joe Newton to let him know, he informed me that the only other student he knows who has accomplished this spectacular feat is Texas A&M statistician Suojin Wang’s daughter Jessica Wang, a 2006 graduate of A&M Consolidated High School in College Station. Here’s more on Jessica from proud dad, Suojin Wang:

Jessica Wang (Credit: Jessica Wang, LinkedIn.)

Jessica Wang (Credit: Jessica Wang, LinkedIn.)


“In the year when she took SAT, it was the first time to have the writing part added to SAT. She took the old SAT too in that year and scored the perfect 1600 as well. She was later selected as a U.S. Presidential Scholar. Jessica recently graduated from Yale University Medical School. She is now a residence doctor at UC San Francisco. She is dedicated to serving the underserved population.”

So, not once but twice in the perfect-SAT-score department for Jessica Wang. Doubly incredible!

Not sure if it’s something in the College Station water, but I’m making my three Bs drink up just in case.

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Interestingly enough, my follow-up correspondence with Kevin Krisciunas led to the following story regarding biographical details and the devil that sometimes lies in their proper documentation. Here’s more from the double-birthday-boy himself:

“I have two official, legal birth certificates — one for Sept. 12, one for Sept. 13. Made for some confusion when I registered for the draft.


“Back when I was born in Chicago, the births were supposed to be recorded on Standard Time. I was born at 12:04 a.m. on the 13th, and the first birth certificate (though it’s legal) was wrong. It said Sept. 13th at 11:04 p.m. The second one had the right day and right Standard Time. I don’t know the rules are still the same in Cook County, Illinois.”

I Am Just a Teacher

The following is a guest post from Patricia Oliver ’11, a 10th grade chemistry and 9th grade Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher at West Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas. A 2011 graduate of Texas A&M University and a member of the aggieTEACH Program, Oliver earned both her bachelor’s of science degree in university studies (2011) and a master’s of education degree in education curriculum and instruction (2012) at Texas A&M. Earlier this month, she was honored with the 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award — a prestigious honor that includes a $5,000 personal award as well as $5,000 for Oliver to spend on her classroom.

Patricia Oliver '11 (right), accumulating extra classroom experience as a Texas A&M undergraduate and aggieTEACH participant. The program, a collaboration between the College of Science and the College of Education and Human Development, has helped Texas A&M lead the State of Texas in number of university-certified math and science teachers produced each year for nearly a decade. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Patricia Oliver ’11 (right), accumulating extra classroom experience as a Texas A&M undergraduate and aggieTEACH participant. The program, a collaboration between the College of Science and the College of Education and Human Development, has helped Texas A&M lead the State of Texas in number of university-certified math and science teachers produced each year for nearly a decade. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

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I am a just teacher. Every year, there comes a point when I contemplate that statement. When people ask me what I do, I automatically answer, “I am a teacher.” And to any non-teacher, that translates to: I talk to students, I grade papers and then I go home. Anyone can do that.

There are many examples of this that all teachers can relate to. One that springs to mind is when a man I was talking to said, “Oh! So you just went to college to get your Mrs. degree?” after hearing I was a teacher. Or it’s commonly assumed that I teach elementary. People are generally shocked when I tell them I teach high school chemistry, often responding with, “Wow! You must be smart, then!” Does that mean if I taught anything else, I am not smart?

The title of “teacher” doesn’t scream intelligence to non-teachers. It is sad that society views the teaching profession in that way. It makes every teacher feel inferior. People’s views of my profession make me second-guess myself all the time. I never think I’m working hard enough. Doing enough. Providing enough. It’s stupid, isn’t it?

This year, I was awarded the STEM innovation teaching award. I had students come hug me and tell me that I was the reason they walked across the stage. But even in those moments of validation, I think I’m not deserving. I feel guilty that I’m being praised for a job well done, because I don’t think I did anything amazing. It’s just my job. I am just a teacher.

2011 Texas A&M University graduate and West Mesquite High School science teacher Patricia Oliver '11 with her 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award. (Credit: Leah Felty.)

2011 Texas A&M University graduate and West Mesquite High School science teacher Patricia Oliver ’11 with her 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award. (Credit: Leah Felty.)

Today, while sitting at lunch at a conference with 2,000 other teachers during my vacation time, I received a text from a former student who recently graduated:

“Ms. Oliver, I would like to thank you for everything you have done for me! You’ve always been there when I had a problem or I needed somebody to talk to. You’ve impacted my life for the best, and I can’t thank you enough for everything! You’ve looked out for me and guided me in the right path. I love you so much, and I know you might hear this from a lot of students, but I honestly mean it. You’re like a mother, sister, best friend and mentor to me. I honestly don’t know where I would be without your guidance. I’m honestly going to miss you so much, but I’ll still, hopefully, go to feed the homeless. Thank you, Ms. Oliver, for everything! I love you from the bottom of my heart! You were and forever will be my favorite teacher.”

The message was sent completely out the blue. I immediately started to cry. When I asked why she sent the text, she responded, “I was just thinking about my high school years and, well, you were in most of it.” My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous! I didn’t pay enough attention to you! I couldn’t possibly mean that much to you.” I am just a teacher.

Then I realized something … never once did she talk about all the chemistry she learned! She didn’t mention all the papers I graded or how the immediate feedback I gave her was so influential! Funny, isn’t it?

Patricia Oliver, showing off her hopefully contagious love for chemistry in her West Mesquite High School classroom. (Credit: Patricia Oliver.)

Patricia Oliver, showing off her hopefully contagious love for chemistry in her West Mesquite High School classroom. (Credit: Patricia Oliver.)

I am more than just a teacher. Like my student said, I am a “mother, sister, best friend and mentor.” I am a counselor, sounding board, advice-giver, mediator and thought-provoker. I change lives.

I am so much more than a teacher, and I am proud.

I could go on forever. But I’ll leave you with my favorite quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Analyze This

In this day and age when an organization’s communications efforts are considered only as good as the tracking metrics put in place to validate them, I am most decidedly old school. While I get that analytics have their place and are here to stay as a valuable strategic tool, I firmly believe even the best metric can never trump good old-fashioned gut instinct.

In essence, when it comes to quality communications, you know it when you see it. In the case of the Texas A&M Division of Research, I routinely do.

Because the Texas A&M College of Science has the largest amount of fundamental research funding on campus, our two communications offices often have quite a bit of agenda overlap and, therefore, lots of opportunities for collaboration in reaching our broader marketing and communications goals.

Director of Communications and Public Relations Susan Wolff and her entire team’s collegiality knows no bounds. Believe me, I’ve extensively tested them — team and bounds — especially during the past few belt-tightened years. Thankfully, individually and collectively, this group subscribes to a singular purpose: providing an invaluable service role for campus units in need of central resources or signal amplification, from governmental relations and federal-funding radars to general societal awareness. Texas A&M Science has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of their goodwill, punctuated in both b-roll and stand-alone pieces for feature stories and news releases from their videographers, sundry retweets and elevated online placements from their social media and web developers, and on-the-fly assistance for professors in need of video or artistic services from their graphic designers and illustrators.

Jeff Gustafson, in his element. (Credit: Amy Richards.)

Jeff Gustafson, in his element. (Credit: Amy Richards.)

The first scenario is how I came to meet Jeff Gustafson in spring 2013 as the videographer in charge of a memorable and most fruitful shoot in Texas A&M chemist Karen Wooley’s laboratory. Admittedly, even prior to that March 7 shoot, I was intrigued by two things: He was a graduate student in the Department of Visualization’s master’s of visualization sciences degree program, and he preferred the nickname “Goose.”

True to form, I arrived on set just as Goose was wrapping up color and lighting testing with Susan, who was serving as Dr. Wooley’s stand-in. He moved fluidly about the tight scene, pausing between equipment adjustments and final checks to introduce himself, punctuating that first impression with a warm smile and a firm handshake. For the most part, I was able to contain myself and simply observe, but in what amounted to a moment of foreshadowing, I did spontaneously extend the shoot when I blurted out an extemporaneous follow-up question after what was supposed to be the final one in the two-hour session.

That day, Goose graciously kept the cameras rolling. In the subsequent days, neither he nor any other member of the Good Ship Research Communications has stopped humoring me in a variety of ways big and small. The resulting videos — oil-absorbing nanoparticles and anti-biofouling polymer coatings, among others — speak well enough for themselves, but for me, the proof is in the many projects in between that day’s final shot/cut and the present.

Which brings me to this sweet bonus — a stylized compilation of cuts from shoots in various Texas A&M Science labs by Goose and fellow videographers Eric Burke and Bhakti Duran, complete with some editorial nudges from Susan. The timing, the touches, the colors, the precision, the overall synergy and synchronicity . . . I am absolutely blown away.

My gut says it’s a perfect mix of art and science. Susan and her crew simply call it a gift to Texas A&M Science. Fitting, considering that’s precisely the word I would use to describe them with regard to this campus and its communications.

Lead, follow or get out of the way. Good communicators know it’s a delicate balance of all three. Here in Texas A&M Science, I’m privileged to lead, follow and get out of the way of some of the very best.

An artistic take on detecting dark matter, developed for a related 2014 press release by Division of Research Communications graduate assistant illustrator Rachel Wang. (Credit: Rachel Wang.)

An artistic take on detecting dark matter, developed for a related 2014 press release by Division of Research Communications graduate assistant illustrator Rachel Wang. (Credit: Rachel Wang.)

Mountain Majesty

So many among our faculty are such excellent storytellers. If not for their pesky day jobs, they could make a fine living as writers. I like to think this blog helps fulfill a dual purpose, enabling them to dabble in trivial pursuits if not possible second careers while bringing what I consider to be valuable behind-the-scenes perspective on any number of interesting subjects.

When it comes to astronomy, particularly anything happening in Chile, I’ve learned from pleasant experience to go straight to Nick Suntzeff. Nine times out of 10, he was either involved and/or present and, true to 3-sigma-level result verification form, he always has a good story.

The following is one that recaps his professional and personal history with Cerro Pachón, previously seen on this blog in his photographs taken on location in Chile. He originally posted said story on his Facebook page on Monday (April 13) and has agreed to let me cross-promote it here for the benefit of a broader audience.

Such a rich culture treasure! The mountain and its backstory’s not half bad, either.

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“Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Cerro Pachón was the mountain I studied for future observatories as part of my job as staff astronomer at CTIO [Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile]. We had to haul the equipment up by mule and establish a small observatory to measure the site quality — seeing, laminar layers, wind speeds, temperature measurements. It now hosts the Gemini 8-meter telescope, the SOAR 4-meter telescope, and starting tomorrow [April 14] with the inauguration ceremonies, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will be a revolutionary 6-meter telescope that will digitize the sky every three nights.

Artist's rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Credit: National Science Foundation).

Artist’s rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Credit: National Science Foundation).


“The mountain is spectacular, as you can see in the video. We could camp on top of the mountain easily because for some reason, there is a year-round spring that runs about 100 feet below the summit.


“The spring is there, I was told by the geologists who did the boring, because of the tremendous hydrostatic pressure from the Andes and the South American trench. They were very surprised, though, that the spring was year-round. Someone was going to do a careful chemical analysis of the water to see where it was coming from, but I don’t know if they ever did this.

“John Irwin did the detailed site surveys in the 1960s and early ’70s, and he helped me understand the mountains there. You can still see the cement pad he put on Pachón between Gemini and LSST, partially buried in rock. It is just on the other side of the road from the spring. … He hated Pachón because he did the survey there during a cold part of the year, and the wind is horrendous on Pachón (which also makes the seeing better than on Tololo). He couldn’t wait to finish the work on Pachón and go someplace more hospitable.

Pachón in the distance, taken from the dormitories at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). Pachón is the flat top mountain at the right, sort of at the end of the road in front. Gemini is in the middle of that mountain, with SOAR to the left and LSST on the right edge of that ridge.

Pachón in the distance, taken from the dormitories at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). Pachón is the flat top mountain at the right, sort of at the end of the road in front. Gemini is in the middle of that mountain, with SOAR to the left and LSST on the right edge of that ridge.


“The broader site is called Cerro Peñon, which means ‘rocky peak’ in Spanish. Pachón means something like ‘skirt,’ according to an Aymará woman from the north of Chile. It also means ‘hairy’ or ‘lazy’ in Chilean slang. I was told that many peaks are called Pachón because the rockfall from the cliffs forms a base and the cliffs, made of columnar andesite, look like the pleated skirts worn by the women of the high Andes.

“Being on a mountain, alone at the telescope, is a magical experience. The sky is like nowhere else. So many stars! If you hold your hand close to the ground, you can see a shadow — the sky is so bright with stars. And maybe that night, you will find something in the sky no one has ever seen or understood before.”

Cerro Tololo mountain, as viewed from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) site.

Cerro Tololo mountain, as viewed from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) site.

Driven by Nature

Cross-country road trips present the perfect opportunity to let your mind wander. The possibilities (much like the road) are endless, particularly if you’re a scientist.

Meet Dwight Bohlmeyer ’84, who earned both a B.S. in marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston in 1984 and an M.S. in genetics from Texas A&M University in 1989. A former department head for the Division of Natural Science (2009-2014) and a longtime biology instructor (1997-2014) at Blinn College’s Bryan campus, he recently joined the Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, where he manages the Salter Farm Educational Research Program.

Dwight and I met this past fall by way of Monarch butterflies and related marketing opportunities. He’s a glutton for all things STEM education, and in addition to having a keen eye for photography, he has the science background to make it beneficial beyond the beauty. If you follow us on Facebook, chances are you’ve probably seen some of his work.

In fact, it was via Facebook that I first learned about his latest project, a daily nature photography challenge to capture five species a day throughout 2015 for a total of 1,825 species by December 31. He dreamed it up as a rather unique New Year’s resolution while filling mental space during his return trip to College Station from Missouri, where he was visiting family for the holidays.

Even though I know these things are all about stretching one’s limits (which I like to think I accomplish by default as a full-time working mother of three), I think Dwight’s really outdone himself here and that the results will be well worth following. And we can all do just that at FIVEx365, the WordPress blog he’s set up to help document his results and keep him accountable like the disciplined scientist he is. He even has rules, which he outlines in the first entry.

And to think, all this time, I’ve been jamming out to mixed CDs and XM Radio during my extended travels. Get the picture?

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

All Work and No Play — OK, Maybe Just a Little Play

If you have that preconceived concept, as I once did, that scientists do nothing all day but merrily toil in their labs, pour ambiguous neon liquids from one beaker to the next and jot incomprehensible equations on a blackboard, well, sorry. That’s fiction.

The truth is that being a scientist can be a downright stressful gig.

Before they can pursue the undiscovered, they have to pursue funding so that they can actually perform the research that’s expected of them. Whenever they do don the stereotypical but regulation-required white lab coat, it’s usually to do the same tedious, non-glitzy experiment multiple times with the hope of coming up with some sort of data worth publishing. Those world-changing discoveries are few and far in between, and even then, more follow-up research must be done, which of course means more grants must be secured. It’s a vicious cycle.

Most of them also teach courses each semester, which involves a fresh new realm of stress. On top of everything else, they have to somehow squeeze in the time to create and plan lectures, hold student office hours and grade assignments and exams. (By the way, scientists and lab techs are among the heaviest coffee drinkers in the U.S.)

Breathing down their necks are supervisors wanting publications, students wanting help with homework and the rest of the world wanting answers to a laundry list of questions on everything from the cosmos to cures. They have obligations to fulfill and deadlines to meet. Normal work hours and weekends are never guaranteed.

To put it bluntly, being a scientist is demanding career. Thankfully, the scientists at Texas A&M, are able to find ways to smile through it all, no matter how strenuous it gets. It’s that whole ‘all work, no play’ notion, and big surprise, they excel at that, too. Here’s a lighthearted look at some of our faculty finding joy in the job(s) they do so well.