Winning Teams

In a higher education news cycle so often dominated by doom and gloom, it’s nice when messages cross my inbox that clearly illustrate the fact that lifelong learning is a labor of love of both discipline(s) and students of all ages.

Case in point: Each year, our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office hosts about a dozen events designed to increase awareness of and interest in STEM, another major higher education news buzz word. The biggest event, both in terms of sheer number of participants and bragging rights at stake, is the Texas Science Olympiad. Hosted by Texas A&M University for the past 13 years, this rigorous academic contest is part of a broader national competition designed to test students’ individual and collective knowledge in areas spanning the STEM gamut. While problem-solving skills are required, so is teamwork — on our end as much as that of the participants.

Yes, it takes a village of volunteers from across this campus and community as well as from industry. Dedicated people who devote their professional and personal talents to scheduling, setting up, staffing, judging and, in some cases, subsidizing the competition’s 56 events involving nearly a thousand people between students and their coaches. And yes, said students and coaches, along with their other teachers, administrators and families work tirelessly to prepare, but so do the event volunteers in order to ensure that everything comes off without a hitch and proceeds as required per competition rules and regulations.

In the end, the top teams and individuals in each division advance to the Science Olympiad National Tournament, but I like to think they’re all winners, given that each learns something about the representative subjects and themselves in the process. And boy, do they collectively celebrate — participants and volunteers — when one of our state winners takes it all at Nationals, which is just what Beckendorff Junior High did last weekend!

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

I mentioned an email at the start of this entry, so I’ll leave it to Nancy Magnussen, director of the Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office and of the Texas Science Olympiad, to tell the rest of this story behind the story via her update to event volunteers below. Considering that another of the week’s headlines was about leadership being the key difference between success and failure in schools, I’d say the Lone Star State is in pretty good shape with a village the likes of this one.

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Howdy all!

I just returned from the 2014 National Science Olympiad in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to let you know how proud I am of all of you and your dedication to this program. Your level of commitment and care you displayed in preparing your events definitely was apparent in the rankings of our four Texas teams at the National competition — our students were AMAZING!!

How amazing, you might ask? Well, simply put, they were INCREDIBLE!!!

Our Texas middle school team, Beckendorff Junior High, in a field of 60 teams from across the country, WON!!!!! They are the 2014 National Science Olympiad CHAMPIONS!!! This was no small feat; they beat all the big powerhouse teams that win this competition year after year. The California, Ohio, New York, Michigan teams — all of them!! This is HUGE!!!! Unbelievable! They achieved this by medaling in 11 events, including three 1st place and one 2nd place events!

And the good news doesn’t stop there. The other three Texas teams that went to Nationals also did incredibly well:

— Seven Lakes High School finished 7th, medaling in eight events, including two 1st place and two 2nd place events!
— Clements High School finished 14th, medaling in six events. This is their highest placing (last year they won only one medal).
— Riverwood Middle School finished 21st, medaling in five events for their highest placing in history as well.

I have attached the final rankings from the National Science Olympiad so you can see how the teams placed in the individual events. . . . Again, I want to thank each of you for the part you played in preparing these four teams for National competition. We have come such a long way in Texas with this important science education program in such a short time. I truly mean it when I say that you folks are the BEST!!!

With great pride in our Texas Science Olympiad teams (YOU and the kids!),

Nancy

Texas, Our Texas

“When I moved here to East Texas over three years ago, I was a little homesick. I grew up in California and also worked and lived in Chile most of my life, and I never lived far from the ocean. Last year when I was in West Texas, I met an elderly woman who had grown up on a ranch west of Eldorado. She said that whenever she leaves Texas, she too feels homesick — not for the ocean but for the sky. I asked her why. She said that growing up on a ranch, especially at night, you have the sky from one horizon to the other horizon, and anywhere she goes, she feels penned in by city lights, fences and city buildings.

“The sky is really a part of the history of Texas. It is in our flag. It is in our music. It is really in the soul of Texas. And I am proud to be here at Texas A&M, helping to bring the sky back to this part of Texas.”

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On December 4, 2009, Texas A&M University astronomer Nicholas B. Suntzeff put the icing on the celebratory cake with this absolutely perfect big-picture analogy, an excerpt of his remarks presented as part of the official dedication of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Nearly five years later, I think his grandiose words are just as fitting in capturing the magnificence of another stately project, Between Heaven and Texas, executed by another master of observation, Wyman Meinzer, the Official State Photographer of Texas whose life’s work involves appreciating and accentuating the Lone Star State’s beauty and sharing it with the world. If you haven’t already had the pleasure, meet Wyman and his most recent, resplendent take on Texas, our Texas.

Wyman Meinzer – Between Heaven And Texas from Wyman Meinzer on Vimeo.

The Right to Wonder

Wise words from author William C. Martin from his bestselling book, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents. And not just for children and their parents, either.

To me, he’s describing science in a nutshell here. Uncannily like the opening sentence in the About section of this blog. Small world/wonder.

Oh, and did I mention that before he became a writer, Martin got his bachelor’s in engineering from the University of California at Berkeley?

Let’s be curious out there, folks. And encourage others, regardless of age, to do the same.

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“Do you have agendas for your children that are more important than the children themselves? Lost in the shuffle of uniforms, practices, games, recitals, and performances can be the creative and joyful soul of your child. Watch and listen carefully. Do they have time to daydream? From their dreams will emerge the practices and activities that will make self-discipline as natural as breathing.”

What Moves a Monarch Man

A recent Slate.com article reporting the lowest level on record of Monarch butterflies reaching Mexico this year reminded me of a related story Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science researcher Dr. Craig Wilson had shared in October prior to agreeing to be a contributing author to this blog. (Incidentally, roughly a month before the Jan. 29 Slate article ran, Craig also had been featured in a PBS piece for his expertise on this very scenario he had forecasted last spring.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

You see, among oh, so many other things, Craig is a valiant champion of all things nature and educational — subjects he views in constant and quite purposeful tandem. When it comes to butterflies, he is the host and caretaker of his own official Monarch Waystation here in Aggieland, known as the USDA/ARS People’s Garden and created as a outdoor classroom designed to get students interested in science and possible related careers. And last spring, he singlehandedly planted milkweed and other butterfly-friendly varieties in the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden. Because it’s the right thing to do, for the children and the butterflies.

After watching that PBS clip as 2013 metamorphosized into 2014, I had emailed Craig to tell him I enjoyed seeing that he has a kindred spirit way down south and that I could totally see him (Craig) breathing life into a Monarch here in Texas. His response?

“Funny you should say that, but I revived a frozen Monarch on a playground in El Reno, Oklahoma several years ago and had it flying around a middle school classroom. The kids made a box for it and provided sugar water, and I transported it with me to Corpus Christi, where I had a conference the next week, and released it in a garden there, sending photos back to the students en route. Helping the migration, one Monarch at a time…”

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view -- as well as personal steps like planting milkweed -- toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view — as well as personal steps like planting milkweed — toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

But I digress. I had mentioned having a past story — why don’t I just let Craig tell it in his own inspiring, firsthand words!

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On Boss’s Day [October 16], we pay homage to our brave and fearless leader. Below is a short essay I wrote in tribute to another Monarch…

From Queen Elizabeth II to other Monarchs including Tim [Scott, Craig’s boss as one of four CMSE co-directors]:

It must be my destiny, to leave one continent behind where I pledged allegiance to a Queen, only to arrive on another where I am again ruled by a Monarch, only this time it is a butterfly.

Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to be invited to a showing of “Flight of the Butterflies” in the IMAX theatre in Austin, Texas where I was enthralled by both the Monarch’s flight and plight, tracing its history through the eyes of a young boy (Urquhart) lying in the pastures above Toronto, Canada, wondering just where they flew, to the discovery near the end of his life that it was to a few acres’ nestling at 10,000 feet in the Sierras that transverse the state of Michoacan in Mexico. The wearing of 3-D spectacles was new to me, but it enhanced the experience beyond my wildest dreams as I felt myself flying with the adult butterflies, munching alongside their caterpillars and dicing with death in the form of crop sprayers, predators and loss of my habitat. But the most wondrous magic for me was to be able to watch the four-year-old girl in front of me, sitting on her father’s lap and reaching out continuously in the total belief that a Monarch would land on her tiny, precious hand. Oh, that everyone could believe.

monarchs-nestingI have been enthralled by Monarchs for several years now and take part in the Citizen Science Project out of Kansas University, through which you can receive individual tags to stick on the hind wing of a migrating Monarch as it flies the 2,000 miles south from Canada in the fall to help track their movements. This is one of the world’s great migrations and, hazardous at the best of times, it has become more so of late due to a multitude of factors ranging from climate change where the extreme heat can dessicate their eggs on the journey north in the spring; wildfires that destroy wildflowers that provide nectar; loss of habitat both in U.S. and Mexico; and, perhaps most drastically, the loss of milkweed plants that are the only food source for their caterpillars.

Milkweed search and recovery has become a particular obsession of mine. I can spot a milkweed blooming on a highway verge despite going at 70 mph as I traverse the country. That necessitates a sudden but safe stop and, armed with my trusty sharpshooter, I dig below the deeply seated tuber and carry my prize back to the car to be transplanted into the USDA/People’s Garden in College Station outside my office, where I watched a female Monarch carefully depositing individual eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves yesterday. Two weeks ago, I was able to tag a male and a female — the first to arrive in our garden from Canada on their fall migration — the faded coloration of their wings and less-than-pristine condition suggesting that they did indeed have hundreds of miles on their odometers.

Naively, I do believe that, “If you plant it, they will come” — it being milkweeds that are native throughout the land over which this Monarch, I believe, should rule. It would be sad to see her go the way of George III. Perhaps, taking a literal leaf out of Lady Bird Johnson’s playbook, the north-south interstates could be planted with milkweeds and become corridors to aid the migration, but that requires a degree of cooperation and collaboration we are sorely missing currently. Would it not be ironic if a Monarch could unite this nation?

E pluribus unum…

The Magic Behind Scientists-in-the-Making

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson offers another guest entry, this one about caterpillars, the magic they weave beyond the silk of their cocoons, and their impact on both science and lifelong learning.

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Fairy godmothers are not just the sole preserve of Hollywood and Disneyland, for I discovered one in 2003 in Bryan — or more precisely at the USDA/Agricultural Research Service/Southern Plains Area Research Center (ARS/SPARC) in College Station. Theresa Robinson was one of several teachers from surrounding school districts who gave of their free time to attend a USDA/ARS Future Scientists workshop, the inaugural and pilot version of a science teacher professional development activity that has since been expanded nationwide as the USDA/HSINP Future Scientists Program — partly, I am sure, because of the initial success of these first participants with their students and perhaps a healthy dose of magic wiffle dust and the wave of Theresa’s magic wand.

Being a Protestant bigot, I do not use this adjective lightly, but “saintly” Theresa has worked her magic with children and adults alike at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan for more years than she cares to remember. This is ironic because she does care and care she does for the students entrusted to her care, always with a gentle but firm voice and an uncanny understanding of what each child needs. By contrast, I look out and see a sea of faces differentiated by color and aspect, treating all the same as I did on December 5, when I was invited to make a presentation to all 78 fifth graders.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

They were a captive audience, but I was the one held captive by their naïve enthusiasm and joyous excitement as experiments exploded around them, eliciting questions that are the life blood of science. Sadly, that blood flow is too often cut off or stifled in our schools as being demanding of too much time. But not in Theresa’s class. With a wave of her imaginary wand, a hush descends out of the educational chaos, at which point the inquisitive child is encouraged to articulate the question that may be that rare and magical question, the one for which we do not have an answer and for which all should strive to seek an answer. That is science.

It struck me that I have worked with Theresa for 10 years now and that she has had her students conduct research on the corn earworm caterpillar (Helicoverpa zea), provided free of charge by the scientists at SPARC each of those years. The current audience of students was not even born when we started, but Johnson Elementary seems to be ahead of the curve or already around it by maintaining contact with their alums and inviting them back to a “Breakfast for Seniors” event six years after they walk out the doors of their elementary school for what they thought was the last time. At the most recent breakfast, more than half of those attending are poised to pursue some type of science at college.

earwormTime is relentless, as is the battle to nurture future scientists and to stem the ever-widening gap between the general population and our environment in which a seemingly simple question like, “Where do seeds come from?” results in the answer, “From a seedling.” We have a problem but, one fairy godmother in Bryan is continuing to sow seeds not of doubt but of aspiration that are taking root to grow future scientists who both question and reason. Disney should cast her in a movie where she may cast her spell over a wider audience desperately in need of a magical elixir of observational and questioning skills to benefit the planet.

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Put ’em together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-boo … A Scientist!

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P.S. As an aside, another teacher from that Class of ’03 was from a tiny rural school in Gauze. One of her fifth-grade boys who studied the corn earworm has been employed at SPARC as a biological technician (insects) for two years and is at Blinn College studying entomology with plans to transfer to Texas A&M.

Click here to read a past feature story on the Future Scientists Program.

Why I Ask Why

I read the other day that the average 4-year-old asks 437 questions a day.

As a mother of three young children (the youngest being a 3-year-old whom I’d consider advanced for his age, if not so much in potty training, then in this department), I can identify. As a journalist who works day in and day out with scientists who poke, probe and ponder for a living, I can also appreciate.

photoSo much value in simple curiosity and in being persistent enough to follow this innate gift to its fruition, whether the outcome ends up being success, failure or something in between. In recognizing and relating to the beauty in the build-up. The end game in the before, during and after insight. The process in and of the pursuit. The long-term possibility, even in the face of setbacks or sidetracks.

In so many ways, scientists and journalists have a lot in common. Both seek to raise awareness and convey information, ideally answers and solutions. In both worlds, accuracy is paramount – or should be. In absence of it, the product/audience is cheated, as is the profession.

Years ago, I got the opportunity to sit in on a PBS interview with 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient Dudley Herschbach, who recounted being asked by a fifth grader whether he thought scientists were made or born. Dr. Herschbach’s answer? “I’m sure scientists are born just like everyone else; however, the difference is, they’re not unmade. Every little kid is a natural scientist because they’re naturally curious. They also want to understand things they see, so they ask lots of ‘why?’ questions. That’s what science is.”

Dr. Herschbach went on to describe research as child’s play, equating it to the way a child first learns a language: “A child isn’t worried about getting the words right or wrong, so they just imitate and they play and they experiment and they learn. That’s the way you need to do science.”

GeniusOut of the mouths of babes, not to mention a Nobel laureate: The world depends on 4-year-olds asking questions. And on us retaining our inner 4-year-old. Well, maybe minus that back-talking part! I bet even Dr. Herschbach’s mother would agree.