Exploratorium Post-Docs Make Cool Classroom Lessons

At the Exploratorium, young Ph.D. scientists have found creative ways to bring their cutting-edge knowledge out of the research laboratory and into the museum and school classrooms. Each of the postdoctoral scientists - Drs. Stephanie Chasteen, Jill Johnsen, Sebastian Martin, and Julie Yu - came to the museum to bridge the gap between the ivory tower and public understanding of science.

"These postdocs are translating research science into the science of everyday materials," says Paul Doherty, Exploratorium senior physicist and co-director of the museum's Teacher Institute, where the postdocs help train middle and high school teachers in the teaching of science.

"At the same time, they are learning invaluable science communication skills that they will carry with them for the rest of their careers," says Bronwyn Bevan, director of the museum's Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS), which works at the intersection of formal and informal science teaching.

Young scientists typically hold at least one temporary postdoctoral appointment (called a postdoc) in a different laboratory from where they completed their Ph.D.s in order to broaden their knowledge and research skills. Completing a postdoc is a step towards building an academic research career.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) normally only awards grants supporting postdocs to research institutions such as universities. However, in 2002, through the NSF-funded CILS, the Exploratorium became one of the first science centers ever to be awarded postdoctoral fellowships in science education by the NSF. The first Exploratorium postdoc was Dr. Stephen Ribisi, Jr., who worked with the museum's Teacher Institute as a CILS biology postdoctoral fellow from 2003 through 2005.

The postdocs may go back into academic science research or may become the science education leaders of the future. Or both -- Dr. Ribisi now has a joint appointment at the University of Massachusetts at Boston in the education and biology departments.

Dr. Johnsen worked as the nanotechnology postdoc from mid-2005 until the end of 2006, and Dr. Chasteen began her postdoc in physics in March 2006. Dr. Martin, postdoc in seismology and geophysics, and chemistry postdoc Dr. Yu, each obtained their own funding for their postdocs in science education.

Here are their stories of bridging the gap between research and science education for the public:

Jill Johnsen, Nanotechnology Postdoc (Palo Alto, California)

Jill Johnsen came to the Exploratorium after receiving her Ph.D. in materials science from the University of California at Davis in 2005. Johnsen discovered that she loved teaching during graduate school, and while she was applying for lecturer positions she asked herself, "Where would be the coolest place to work?" Remembering the Exploratorium from school field trips, Johnsen visited the museum's website to discover the nanotechnology postdoc opening, which dovetailed with her research into nanocrystalline ceramics used in fuel cells.

Johnsen has learned how to teach a broader audience of teachers and students of all ages at the Teacher Institute. She has even taught a class on the cutting-edge topic of nanoscience for a group of first-graders. "I couldn't use certain words such as 'properties,' 'drug delivery,' and 'cancer treatment,'" Johnsen says about the challenge of explaining how matter behaves differently when broken down into clusters of atoms. Yet she could still demonstrate how properties change with size, such as showing how fine gauge copper wire can float on top of water while larger gauge wire will sink.

Johnsen has also created several activities that convey sophisticated science with simple materials. Among these, she researched materials to figure out how to make a nontoxic version of ferrofluid, a liquid containing iron oxide particles that form unusual shapes under a magnetic field. In Johnsen's activity, students can get the iron oxide particles by scraping an old videotape. She also created a recipe for making a homemade nanocrystalline solar cell with an ingredient list that includes blackberries.

Looking ahead, Johnsen plans to stay connected with the museum while she explores opportunities in education. "It's been the most wonderful experience I could have asked for," says Johnsen of her time as a postdoc. "I've gotten so much good, critical, positive feedback from the staff." -- www.exploratorium.edu

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