Full STEAM Ahead |
Facing tech worker shortages in some sectors of the economy, there’s a broad consensus to support the STEM fields. There’s also a movement to link arts to science, technology, engineering, and math education, but others fear art will dilute STEM.
Aside from a longer acronym—does STEAM sound better than STEM? Discuss!—some academics stress the intellectual and practical benefits of including the arts. At American University, signs point toward STEAM, and there are concrete examples of science professors incorporating art into their curricula and work spaces. In the new Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building, the Design and Build Lab (known as the makerspace), the Game Lab, and the Incubator all encourage ingenuity, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a little imagination.
“We really want those to be used university wide,” says Kathryn Walters-Conte, director of professional sciences masters in biotechnology who’s worked with the Incubator and makerspace. “Having the A in there is not only for arts, but also for accessibility. This is not just something exclusively for students who are studying science. These spaces and these resources are for everybody.”
THE AESTHETIC COMPONENT
In the Physics Department, Jonathan Newport is one of those creative scientists. Inside his office you can find complex gadgets, which he’s personally designed to enhance scientific understanding. Newport also believes in artistic presentation, and he’s devised visually appealing devices that produce unique sounds.
Among the demonstrations Newport has constructed is one that allows people to ‘hear’ electronic noise. The device picks up signals from nearby electronic devices, such as cell phones, then amplifies the signals so they can be heard. “Electronic noise is everywhere. For example, our power grid oscillates at 60Hz. If you touch the input to an amplified speaker your body acts as an antenna and you can hear this 60Hz ‘hum’ through the audio system.”
Newport was heavily influenced by San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a museum founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer (brother of atomic bomb pioneer Robert). “Frank Oppenheimer took a different tack than most scientists, as he was brought up in a family that appreciated the arts,” Newport explains. “The Exploratorium illustrates all the same sorts of physical phenomena that most science museums demonstrate, but they are presented in aesthetically pleasing and creative ways. This approach influences my curricular design and serves as inspiration for the demonstrations I construct.”
Newport strongly supports adding art to STEM. “Is engineering anything without an aesthetic component? You could have something that is very practical, but maybe no one would use because it doesn’t have a good user interface, or it wasn’t interesting to humans,” he says. Newport opines that, “Two of the most interesting features of humans are our ability to understand the universe and our capacity for creativity, and these features are embodied in science and art.”
CAS professors think design projects will make science classes more attractive to non-science majors. When student enrollment in Physics 100 started dropping, Newport revised the curriculum and included puzzle solving, measurement tool creation, and pneumatic rocket testing. “Students have approached me and said, ‘This is the reason I took this class, because I heard we get to build rockets.’”
EXPLORING THE MAKERSPACE
Advances in modern technology sometimes obviate the need for humans. Decades ago, a lot more people could probably build a table or install a light fixture. The Design and Build Lab, also known as DaBL, or colloquially just “the makerspace,” is part of a nationwide movement to get people working with their hands again. That’s why you can find a sewing machine there—a fixture from early 20th century American households. DaBL manager Kristof Aldenderfer describes a place where you not only design things, but get involved in the entire development process.
“We’re finding students who are excited about working for the space. We’re training them on the equipment so they can assist users with their projects, and we’re building out the educational materials for the space as well,” says Aldenderfer, a physics and computer science instructor who’s also an AU alum. “You can buy all the 3-D printers you want, but if no one understands how to design for them, or how to actually use them, then what’s the point?”
Despite that back-to-basics philosophy, Aldenderfer says the makerspace’s technology increases accessibility. While old machine shops often required lengthy apprenticeships, a digital fabrication machine has a much lower barrier to entry.
“You could go into this space, and in three hours, I could have you creating your own digital model of something three dimensional and then printing it out on a 3-D printer,” Aldenderfer says, noting how someone recently printed a giant dragon. “Advances in technology inform aesthetics and inform art here.”
Along with current features, DaBL will soon get a laser cutter, where users can cut through wood or plastic material to create something new. The makerspace has student specialists on duty during open hours, and professors outside AU sciences are using it. Andy Holtin, in the Department of Art, is teaching an Honors course there called Creativity and Innovation.
Ultimately, Aldenderfer believes the STEAM versus STEM debate is a false one. STEM disciplines are about how things work, art is about how things feel, and these concepts are interconnected.
“In biology you’re creating vaccines. In engineering you’re creating gearing systems. In art you’re creating paintings and sculptures,” he says. “All of these disciplines are tied together by the idea of creating, because that’s what humans enjoy.”
Celebrate Science and More: AU’s First STEAM Faire on Friday!Tech Talks, Games, Workshops, Prizes, Tours, and Food at new Don Myers Building |
Solar System explosions, racing cockroaches, optical illusions, and an anatomy fashion show … the sciences and arts are coming to life at the new Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building on Friday, October 20, from noon to 4 p.m.
It’s American University’s first STEAM Faire—a celebration of Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts, and Mathematics. The event is free, and the entire AU community is welcome to stop by for tech talks, workshops, games and prizes, tours of the new building, and food.
“This is a great opportunity to experience our new, cutting-edge Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building,” said Kathryn Walters-Conte, College of Arts and Sciences science coordinator and director of American University’s Masters in Biotechnology Program. “It’s also a great chance to learn about the exciting science, technology, entrepreneurship, art, and mathematics work going on right now at AU—and get inspired by it.”
EXHIBITS AND DEMONSTRATIONS
Stop by Myers Plaza from 1–4 p.m. to check out exhibits and demonstrations across the sciences, arts and from the Kogod Incubator. From the Society of Physics Students presenting Physics Phor All, to the Kogod Incubator’s Technovate! exhibit, to the BRAIN at AU club’s What Inside Your Head exhibit, there is something for everyone.
LIGO KEYNOTE SPEAKER
Want to learn more about American University’s Nobel Prize winning LIGO project? The STEAM Faire’s keynote speaker is Nergis Mavalvala, McArthur Genius Award winner and MIT Professor working with AU’s Professor of Physics Gregg Harry. Mavalvala will speak at noon in the Myers’ building’s Collaboration Lab (Room 111).
Join us to listen as American University faculty members present short tech talks based on their latest research. From noon until 4 p.m. in the Myers’ building’s Collaboration Lab (Room 111).
WORKSHOPS AND TOURS
Check out the AU Game Design Lab, a series of optical illusions, and STEAMworks, the university’s new Makerspace.
Seeing the Light | November 28, 2017
On Friday February 24 you may have noticed a few extra faces on campus. Over seventy middle school students from DC Public Schools participated in the first annual American University Optics Olympiad in the Mary Graydon Center. The Olympiad’s aim is to reach traditionally underrepresented groups in the sciences at a young age and get students excited about science.
Middle school students from Hardy Middle school, The Washington School for Girls, and Inspired Public Charter School, were brought to AU to learn about optics by participating in demonstrations about color perception, infrared light, waves, lenses, and lasers. Highlights included a laser maze, an infrared camera that can see through plastic, and a Ruben’s tube which shows wave behavior with different sizes of flames. The Olympiad was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, with additional support from the College of Arts and Sciences, the AU Physics department, and the American Physical Society.
After a pizza lunch, students had a question-and-answer session with professionals from the National Society of Black Physicists. Later, teams of students participated in a Jeopardy style quiz tournament based on the optics knowledge the students learned in the morning. After a hard fought battle the tournament ended with a victory for the Hardy Middle School Hawks. All of the students left the Olympiad with a goodie bag of optics toys and comics.
The Optics Olympiad was run by faculty and staff in the physics department as well as student volunteers from around campus. Planning has already begun for the second annual Optics Olympiad in academic year 2017-18. If you would like to contribute in any way please contact Dr. Gregg Harry of the AU Physics Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to science outreach, AU students are also conducting physics research on and off campus. This includes students from AU’s Physics Department working as space weather forecasters, defending NASA missions from the aggressions of the sun. Space weather refers to the changing conditions of the sun’s activity, including billion-ton eruptions of plasma and high-speed streams of solar wind, and solar events that cause geomagnetic storms at Earth. Damaging effects include radiation for astronauts and airliners, atmospheric expansion slowing satellites, communication disruptions, and electrical surges in power grids. Space weather also causes the colorful aurora at Earth’s poles.
The Space Weather Research Center (SWRC) at NASA Goddard works through the Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC), and NASA depends on student forecasters, including American University alum Dhanesh Krishnarao, and AU seniors Alexandra Wold and Zach Waldron, to observe and analyze the Sun’s activity. Student forecasters report directly to Mission Operations if solar events have the potential to impact any of NASA’s Earth or space assets. Students become certified as Independent Forecasters by attending NASA’s 10-week summer internship program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The internship consists of a two-week boot camp to learn the fundamental physics that drives the space weather, and another eight weeks of real-time operations, practice, and research.
During their internship, Zach and Alex won the Orbit Award for Science for presenting their research poster, Space Weather Forecasting Active Region 12371, at the GSFC Summer Intern Poster Session in July 2015. Previously, Dhanesh Krishnarao helped develop the Spacecraft Environmental Anomalies Expert System (SEAES), a system useful to NASA mission operators. Zach Waldron worked to determine the correlation between solar dimmings and coronal mass ejections. In Summer 2016, he then conducted nuclear physics research at the Institute for Nuclear Physics in Mainz, Germany, and he is now doing astrophysics research at George Washington University in a search for fast radio transients.
Alex Wold returned to NASA in summer 2016 to teach the newest generation of space weather forecasters, and she was awarded the prestigious John Mather Nobel Scholarship, which funds her travel to present her research at professional conferences. She is now working at NASA to validate the real-time coronal mass ejection arrival-time predictions of the WSA-ENLIL+Cone model at the CCMC. She has presented her work across the country and abroad: at the American Geophysical Union Fall meeting in San Francisco, at European Space Weather Week in Belgium, and at the International CCMC-LWS Working Meeting in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Her abstract was recently accepted for presentation at the Japanese Geoscience Union Meeting in Chiba, Japan, where she will travel before returning to Goddard to train more space weather forecasters for a final summer.
After graduating this summer, Zach will work at the National Institute for the Standards of Technology (NIST) on the remote sensing of radiation dosages, and plans to work on a Ph.D. in Physics starting Fall 2018. Alex has accepted an offer from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Aerospace Engineering Sciences Ph.D. program, and will be studying Remote Sensing, Earth, and Space Sciences starting Fall 2017.
Partnership to Improve Science Education in DC Schools | November 18, 2016
American University science and education faculty and students are working with middle school science teachers across DC to develop and implement student-centered, investigative science curriculum for their classrooms. This work includes developing an intensive professional development relationship with one school in particular, Ideal Academy Public Charter School. The program, named the Learning and Teaching Science with Scientists Institute, is funded by a Mathematics and Science Partnerships Grant through the DC Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE).
Over the summer, 14 teachers participated in a training institute at American University, focusing on laboratory approaches to learning biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental sciences, as well as pedagogy, or how to use student-centered experimentation as a best practice for teaching and learning science. For example, if a teacher walks into a classroom and lectures on electricity to 7th graders, they will get a very different reaction than if they have the students work on building their own snap circuits. Of the 14 teachers, 4 work at Ideal, and 10 work at other schools across DC. During the summer, teachers developed and tested lesson plans to teach the science approaches learned in the institute, using the experiential strategies taught in the pedagogy course. While the summer institute is over, work on the project continues.
During the fall semester, four AU science students went to the schools across DC to observe teachers implementing lesson plans in their science courses. These lesson plans were developed using the best practices taught this summer, including the “5Es” of science instruction: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate. AU’s science students used an observation protocol to help determine whether teachers were using their new skills, and whether these skills were helping students learn.
In addition, three AU science students, Nikita Srivastava, Kirk Blackmoore, and Rachel Zayas have been going to Ideal weekly to help 8th grade students with their science fair projects. The school’s science fair was held last winter, and Blackmoore and Zayas are evaluating the 8th grade projects. After the school-based fair, AU science students and faculty continue to support the Ideal students whose projects will represent Ideal at a DC-wide middle school science fair.
The grant also allowed AU to purchase materials for Ideal, including a weather station and snap circuits. Fifth grade students at Ideal are monitoring the temperature, wind speed and direction, rain, and barometric pressure digitally in their classroom. Some students have used the data for their science fair projects. Jonathan Newport, AU physics lab director, and Srivastana have been working with the 6th and 7th grade students on using the snap circuits. According to Srivastana, students are learning about “basic circuits, resistance, and capacitance. It’s been really fun for everyone!”
When reflecting on his experiences at Ideal, Blackmoore said, “Working with the budding scientists at Ideal has forced me to improve personally, academically, and socially every single time. The kids are very high-energy and observant, so I need to be ready to help them discover new things and nurture their interests. I have really seen growth in them through the questions they now ask and the way they carry themselves, which is very encouraging. The future is bright in the scientific world.“ The project is allowing AU students and faculty to build strong relationships with staff at Ideal, ultimately helping the school to build and enhance its science curriculum, which should lead to increased student engagement and achievement.
“One of the most gratifying moments of the LTSS grant project was when the Ideal Public Charter School teachers told me they had created lab time in their science classes for student centered experiments,” said Nancy Zeller, AU’s recently retired coordinator of science teaching labs and one of the grant managers for the institute. “Students getting excited about snap circuits and observing how bean seeds can germinate on filter paper are the best ways to engage budding young scientists.”
The project’s funding expires at the end of this school year, but AU hopes to continue its relationship with Ideal in the future.
From Adversity to Outer Space NASA Division: Deputy Director Sandra Cauffman speaks at AU | April 2, 2018
On March 22, Sandra Cauffman, NASA Earth Science Division Deputy Director, visited AU to share her inspiring story of perseverance, from her childhood in Costa Rica, to her rise through the ranks of NASA. AU student Libby Parker (BA public relations and strategic communication, minors in graphic design and marketing’18) attended the event. Here, she shares her impressions of Ms. Cauffman’s talk.
In 1969, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and said the famous words, “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” he inspired a young girl in Costa Rica to follow her dreams.
The girl was Sandra Cauffman, who told her mother that she, too, would like to go to the moon someday. And now, nearly half a century later, Cauffman is a leader at NASA-as the Earth Science Division Deputy Director, she manages NASA’s entire Earth Science portfolio, including technology development, applied science, research, and mission implementation and operation.
Cauffman shared her inspiring story of perseverance with AU students and faculty as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Bishop McCabe Lecture series. “Ms. Caufmann was an inspiration to our students and faculty alike,” said Kathryn Walters-Conte, CAS Science Coordinator and Director of AU’s Masters in Biotechnology. “We were all riveted by her life story, which struck a cord with nearly all of us in some way. We are thrilled that we were able to spend the afternoon and evening with such a distinguished yet down-to-earth woman scientist.”
BEFORE THE LAUNCH
Growing up in Costa Rica, Cauffman’s family struggled to make ends meet. Cauffman was only thirteen when her mother became ill, so Cauffman went to work to support her family while continuing her education. With her mother’s encouragement, Cauffman graduated from high school as the second best in the class, with the intention to study electrical engineering and physics.
At the University of Costa Rica, Cauffman was pushed to study industrial engineering, as the electrical engineering program was not accepting women. Feeling disconnected to her studies, Cauffman shared her frustrations with her stepfather, who agreed to help her travel to the United States to pursue a double major in electrical engineering and physics at George Mason University.
DISCOVERING MISSION CONTROL
After graduation, Cauffman landed a contracting position at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. She served as deputy systems program director for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program. GOES is a satellite that tracks atmospheric triggers for weather conditions such as tornadoes, flash floods, hail storms, and hurricanes, with the purpose of predicting natural disasters before they occur.
“I started as a lowly instrument manager and then worked my way up to becoming the deputy division manager for the satellites within the program,” Cauffman said, referencing her thirty-plus years of experience at NASA.
Cauffman also served as the deputy project manager for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission. “By studying the planets, we can better understand earth, and by studying earth we can get a better understanding of the planets,” she said.
The purpose of the MAVEN mission is to determine how the red planet’s atmosphere and water, presumed to have once been substantial, were lost over time. Exploring the environmental history of Mars helps earth scientists make climate change predictions about the Earth, based on the planets’ similarities.
LANDING IN COMMUNITY
As a Hispanic woman, Cauffman shared that in the beginning of her career, she felt that she had to work harder to demonstrate that she was just as capable as her male counterparts. “I would say something and they wouldn’t hear me. Then a man would say the same thing, and everyone would pay attention.”
After working in NASA for decades, Cauffman expressed her dedication for her work, and emphasized the importance of community in the workplace. “I have worked on a number of missions and witnessed a lot of launches. But what I love most are the people I work with and the amazing teams that we have. We do wonderful things that help not only the nation, but the world.”
INSPIRATION FOR THE AU COMMUNITY AND BEYOND
At the end of her talk, Cauffman shared personal wisdom and career advice. She encouraged the audience to follow their dreams, to explore different subjects, and to build a toolbox of skills. “Find out what you love, create your own career and fuse your interests together,” advised Cauffman.
Senior Jake Blumenstock (BA history and political science ’18) shared his reaction to the talk and how he has fused his interests in space, history, and political science together at AU. “I appreciated that she talked about how NASA benefits us as society as a whole. One of my political science focuses is space policy and history. I firmly believe a second space race is coming.”
In closing Sandra Cauffman reflected on her own journey, “I had so many things thrown my way, but I knew in my heart what I wanted to too, so I stuck to it.”