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What made you decide to apply to be a Society Fellow?
I wanted to inspire my students through research. It’s important that students use all their senses to explore science, not just their ears as they listen to a lecture, but their hands as they touch the world. I was amazed that the Society felt the same way and dedicated funds to teachers to specifically target children from neighborhoods that needed a boost in their science programs.
What is your background in science and research?
I worked toward a PhD in atomic physics until I became dismayed with my own research and headed into teaching. As a teacher, I have ventured to Antarctica to study ozone depletion, Africa to study infrasound, and Norway to learn about glacier seismology. When I am with my students, I can inspire them to do research because of the passion I feel for it.
Can you describe what your experience as a Society Fellow has been like?
I cannot recommend a better program for high school teachers. It is well worth the effort to write the grant and bring four years of funded science research to your students. I enjoyed the conversations I had with like-minded teachers, the exchange of information between the group, and the contacts that the program has brought to my school. Developing a research program means competing with the status quo- you have to create a mindset among your administrators, counselors, and student body that this really cool opportunity exists and that students should be directed toward it as a career goal. While some grants are only one year at a time, the Society affords a long term commitment which allows for a paradigm shift in the community.
Can you describe the progress you have made at your school and in your community?
I am entering my third year as a Society Fellow. The first two years were quite successful, we went from having ten students to thirty, and each year we have been able to send a student to Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF). Additionally we have established a tradition of quality science research by participating in MIT Inventeams and winning first place at the Conrad Awards last year. We continue to enter Science Bowl and to do outreach programs with the elementary school students in our district.
What advice would you have for other individuals attempting to increase interest in science in their communities?
President Obama has a very keen interest in promoting science, or STEM in general, within secondary education. His annual science fairs are a remarkable tour de force of all the STEM competitions across America. I would encourage new teachers to take a long look at the students and corporations listed on the White House Science Fair invitation. It is a remarkable list of corporate philanthropy that has produced genuine results through inspiring students who might not otherwise succeed in science. A new teacher should also attend quality summer research programs to stay on the cutting edge of science; many of these are listed in the National Science Teacher Association bulletins. The most important element in creating a strong research program is to convince your administrator of the need to have a dedicated honors research class within the school day and align this course with district and state standards. Finally, expect to put in time to find mentors for students and to keep your lab open at school for those late night experiments.
You had a student, Shawn Meacham, who won a 4th award in Behavioral and Social Sciences and two special award organization awards (Psi Chi and US Army) at this year’s Intel ISEF. How do events like Intel ISEF impact students and research programs such as yours?
In our first year, Savannah Tobin won a special organization award sponsored by the Air Force at Intel ISEF with an entirely original project on tracking domestic cats. She was so inspired that she has continued her research with universities and is currently working on analyzing cat allergens in the hope of returning to compete at Intel ISEF. Shawn Meacham did a fantastic project on correlating Twitter data with political elections. Both of these students won prestigious scholarships to local universities. The thought that doing science might result in colleges searching you out, or even better a career in the field, never really occurred to many of my students. Seeing their peers excel in science builds on the program and inspires others to join.
View more information about Shawn and Savannah's projects in our Intel ISEF searchable abstracts.
Do you have any advice for young students interested in pursuing science?
All three of my children chose STEM careers — one is a math major, one works for Intel, and the other works for Space-X, the company that just recently docked to the space station. When I was a student we used to joke that the coolest business card would be one that said “rocket scientist,” and now my own son has just that. So my advice to kids is that science is the ultimate in cool. There is nothing so rewarding as discovery. Today we are faced with generational issues; that of global climate change, energy shortages, and feeding the world. It will be science that comes to the rescue, and it will be this generation that solves these problems, so please learn as much as you can about science and springboard into it by doing science research before going into college.
What are your future plans?
I am currently raising money to send a student experiment onboard the space station through an organization called Student Spaceflight Experiments. I hope this project will inspire all of the ninth grade class to design experiments. Through a peer review process, we will select the one project that will go aboard.
To the new teachers setting out… statistics show that after three years, a third of you will quit. I did too. I felt like a fraud not teaching with passion. After much thought I jumped back in, but with the caveat that I promised myself to do the very best I could. Programs like the Society Fellowship transformed my teaching; they have kept my spirits high and my students learning with enthusiasm. I would not be teaching without the support I get from the community, the parents, and deep thanks of students when I see them walk at graduation. There is no better job in my book than being a science teacher.
Want to diversify STEM? Here’s an opportunity to do so.
Devon Riter was named a Society Advocate in May 2018.