Gil Yanow, Ph.D., has been a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the last 25 years. Over more than two decades, he has directed projects to develop curriculum, train teachers in mathematics and science instruction, and improve classroom utilization of technology.
What is JPL’s mission relative to teaching science?
When I started working with teachers back in the early 1980s, my philosophy was you had to really think about and give teachers what they needed. I realized that meant going back and teaching them fundamentals, showing teachers how these fundamentals apply to what our scientists are doing. Then they could understand how we get into an orbit, how we can land a rocket straight down, maybe even some of the instrumentation we have.
NASA headquarters understands this and they certainly are 100 percent behind that kind of approach. They’re working directly with the science teachers’ organizations and other groups. They’re going to the individual states and asking what their needs are, what are the things that are tough for teachers, and then trying to develop tools that help them over the hump. It’s very much a partnership, where we are trying to fit our expert knowledge to teachers’ needs to come up with things that will really help kids learn science.
Can you talk about some of the projects you’re involved in?
Project SUN (Students Understanding Nature) evolved to see if we could get schools monitoring the amount of ultraviolet radiation and visible light at the surface of the earth in their locations.
If ever the energy demon raises his head again, and we want to rethink the possibility of using solar energy, we have to know how much of this resource is available. The idea arose from scientific needs: the government had been doing a lot of those measurements, but as budgets got cut back, they started cutting back their monitoring stations. We thought students could help with this work.
We started out with a few schools and now we have about twelve schools around the world, including schools here in the US on the west and east coasts, in Australia, Japan, and a geophysical institute in the Canary Islands. We’re slowly building up enough information that it may be possible to see what happens over a long period of time.
In another project, SeaWinds, we plan to have students around the world “adopt” a piece of the ocean–something like 1 degree by 1 degree, which on the equator turns out to be more like 100 km by 100 km. For their piece of the ocean, they will be monitoring and analyzing the winds data generated by the Seawinds instrument that we launched last June.
There are a lot of interesting questions they can help us answer. For example, how much do the winds vary across your 1 degree by 1 degree? How do the winds in different parts of your area correlate with weather patterns?
If we had been looking at very small parcels of ocean a few years ago, we might have noticed changes in ocean winds off the coast of Australia and actually predicted the El Nino event that caused so much devastation.
What are the benefits of using the Internet in projects like this?
The Internet sews everyone together.
We used to do things several years ago with amateur radio, having students talk with scientists here. The trouble was that it was one conversation at a time. You couldn’t have a lot of people on the line at the same time, and it was only at a certain time schedule. Also, we could only work with local teachers.
With the Internet, we suddenly have the ability to talk to people around the world, and if you can’t talk to them, you can post a message to them that they might get within a matter of minutes. It’s a way of transferring not only your conversations through a chat room, but your data files, your pictures, anything else. It almost allows us to be in everyone else’s back yard.
What does it mean to teach science in the year 2000?
As a student, I always found it very difficult to have people present something to me from the front of the room and say “learn this” and “memorize this.” Sometimes it was interesting just on its own, but most of the time I didn’t understand where it fit into the big picture. I thought I was wasting my time memorizing this thing, because I didn’t really fully understand it.
The way science ought to be taught, and there are teachers who are doing it, is through a series of real research tasks. These can range from quite simple to rather sophisticated. The impetus is always there: you know why you’re learning and you know what you want to learn next. The trick is to come up with those kinds of activities – and this is where the teacher is so important.
What kind of support do teachers need to teach science that way?
Often you’ll have a teacher in the K-12 area who knows how to teach, but hasn’t played around with the science enough to see some of the really neat things about it, some of the beauty in it.
After you’ve been doing science for awhile, you begin to see how almost everything we do, including the missions we have at JPL, are based on some really basic concepts that for the most part are probably introduced around the fifth or sixth grade. But if you haven’t had the experience of working in science for a long time, you just see the surface and it looks very complicated. You don’t see through it to see how these things really are basic.
What we have done in the past with elementary teachers is take them back to subjects like basic electricity and let them just start to play, without trying to explain it all in the proper scientific manner with the electrons here and electric fields there. Just think of electricity as some kind of energetic fluid. Now you start to picture that energetic fluid going through the little wires and doing electrical things and that picture is enough to help you see where the equations come from that govern electricity. And you can use those equations to predict things and check your predictions and that starts to be a lot of fun.
It takes time, of course. We did a course with elementary teachers that included an intensive four weeks at JPL, then a follow-up program for a year. We found that this was successful with a large percentage of the teachers. They felt that they knew they could do the science, and many of them went on to take university courses. One of the teachers we worked with became the science specialist for her district.
The secret for the teachers is to not be afraid. Don’t think that you have to have formal knowledge and an understanding of all of the equations in order to comprehend something. Take one principle and test it in your own environment, play around with it and look for examples of it until it makes sense. When you do, all of a sudden you can teach that principle in such a great way because you’re not trying to follow a script; you’re teaching a concept.
What’s the ultimate goal?
Our primary goal is to get students excited about science and math, because we need more scientists, engineers and technicians
But there’s another equally important goal. Technology and science now affect everyone’s lives. If you want to maintain a government by the people, of the people, for the people, then the people have to have some knowledge and understanding regarding the decisions being made. What budget should be given to NASA, to the military? What are the things in scientific research, in the medical area, that really should be pursued? Which project even has a chance at succeeding?
If it gets to the point where there’s just a small, elite group of people at the top making all the technology and science decisions, we’re going to lose our democracy. In order to keep people participating, we don’t have to turn every student into a rocket scientist, but we do need to turn out graduates who have an understanding of the scientific process and a good grasp of the key ideas.
To reach that goal, scientists and educators are going to need to make a substantial effort to understand each other’s jobs.