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February 2001

Q&A with Roberta Johnson: Science and education

Roberta Johnson. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Roberta Johnson wears two hats, as a research scientist and as director of UCAR's new Office of Education and Outreach (OEO). Her scientific appointment is in HAO, where she's a member of the section on Terrestrial Impact of Solar Output (TISO). She came to Boulder with her husband, NCAR director Tim Killeen, from the University of Michigan last July. To learn more about this scientist/educator, Staff Notes Monthly recently had a chat with Roberta in her HAO office, just east of the library in FL2.

• Zhenya Gallon

SN: You have 50-50 appointments in UCAR and NCAR. How have you been spending your time?

RJ: So far, I've been spending the majority of my time working on getting the Education and Outreach office set up. There have been presentations at NSF and at the Board of Trustees and members' meetings, and we're working to get the strategic plan for OEO completed by March. At that point I'm looking forward to being able to more equally split my activities between education and science.

SN: What's your scientific background?

RJ: I have training in atmospheric science, earth science, and geophysics in general, as well as space science. I got my degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, in the Earth and Space Science Department. My bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. are all in geophysics and space physics. I focused on solar-terrestrial relations and did my dissertation on the interactions of the upper atmosphere with the magnetosphere and ionosphere. So the research I do now continues much of the work that I did in the past. When I left UCLA with my degree in 1987, I went to SRI in Menlo Park and worked there as a staff scientist for two years until I went to Michigan in 1989.

One of the cool things about coming to NCAR and UCAR is that I did some of my dissertation research here. Back in the mid-80s I was developing model results based on Ray Roble's TGCM [Thermospheric General Circulation Model], as it was known at the time. One of the things I did was look at the response of the atmosphere in the lower thermospheric region and compare it to the TGCM model predictions. I've been working with Ray since then. One of the issues I addressed in my thesis was how to represent the ion convection pattern. Art Richmond wasn't actually on my committee, but he was someone that I [consulted] regarding the convection pattern. I also came out here starting in the early 1980s for the CEDAR program—Coupling, Energetics and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions. So NCAR has played a big role in my life since then.

SN: How does what you were doing at the University of Michigan compare to what you're doing here?

At Michigan I was a research scientist in the Space Physics Research Laboratory and my focus was on upper-atmospheric dynamics, specifically the impact of geomagnetic activity in high-latitude regions on the earth's upper atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetosphere. Because I've worked with Ray, Maura [Hagan] and other people here at TISO over the years, it's like taking a collaboration that was formerly done remotely and now doing it within the group—which is really great. It's wonderful.

I'm also continuing my involvement with a number of other scientific collaborations. I'm a co-investigator on the NASA Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics (TIMED) Doppler Interferometer (TIDI) investigation, now planned for launch in July. My involvement with TIDI centers on the study of atmospheric tides and their response to geomagnetic activity, extending my previous work, which centered on ground-based measurements and modeling. Just before leaving the University of Michigan, one of my students, Irfan Azeem, finished his graduate studies and moved on to the University of Colorado on a postdoc. Now that I'm here too, we're continuing our collaboration on ground-based tidal studies.

On the education side, I was the director of the Michigan Space Grant Consortium and also ran a large Web development program called Windows to the Universe (see sidebar). The Michigan consortium is one of 52 around the country funded by NASA. Their purpose is to develop programs in education, outreach, and research initiation that serve NASA's mission. So that's anything from developing public events to creating education programs for teachers to funding junior researchers who are trying to get a new research program started. We had a budget of about $500,000 a year that we distributed through about 150 different program awards and fellowships across the state.

There's a different flavor to what I'm doing here. Not quite as much space science, clearly, but also, this is education and outreach from the perspective of a national center rather than from a university.

SN: What about externally funded education programs here in UCAR?

RJ: There are a number of ongoing programs within UCAR and NCAR. In addition, a number of new proposals have gone in already from OEO. For instance, the continuation of LEARN in the CLIMATE proposal [Collaboration Linking Mentors in Atmospheric Science for Teacher Enhancement] was submitted last October. We have a number of different funding sources in place for Windows to the Universe and we're looking for funding not only from the government sector but also [through] possible collaborations with industry and the private sector.

Windows has a real opportunity for massively increasing [our] public interface, and there's a lot we could do within Windows for atmospheric sciences and earth systems. We don't have any funding to do that, because the funding we have in place now is all directed towards space, space missions, and commercialization of space-program research, not towards developing the atmospheric side. So, certainly, that's something I would like to see addressed.

SN: Speaking of opportunities, how are you identifying priorities within the world of things you could be doing in OEO?

RJ: We did a good thing in getting our planning committee together (see sidebar). We brought many of the key players in the institution who work in education and outreach together, and we've been through at least 13 strategic planning meetings, building a well-developed outline for our strategic plan. It includes putting in the structures necessary to make the Office of Education and Outreach a functioning unit.

Of course, getting the funding in place needed to make it happen is vital. So we're focusing a lot of energy on that. We have to work on bringing in external funds for direct-funded programs, including large- scale projects as well as supplements to science proposals (see below). But then there's also the continuation and, as necessary, revision and expansion of existing programs that serve the whole organization, like the exhibit and tour program, the corporate exhibits program, the events—all of those kinds of things that are not based on external funds.

Through the strategic planning process, and our interactions with NSF and the [UCAR] members last fall, we got a lot of really valuable feedback. Members put emphasis on a number of projects, including creation of an educational resources development facility for faculty—university and precollege—where educators could come for a workshop in the summer, spend a period of time finding digital resources that they would like to incorporate in their courses, and then have that available to take back to their university or their school in the fall. And, of course, have that facility be available to them remotely as well, over the Web.

They also expressed quite a bit of interest in having UCAR play a larger role in recruitment of graduate students for the field. I am currently the chair of the American Geophysical Union's education and human resources committee, so I'm looking at the possibility of developing a joint project between AGU, possibly the American Meteorological Society, and UCAR to focus on recruitment for the field as a whole—all of geosciences.

One of the things we're really looking forward to doing for the institution as a whole, and in fact we're already doing it, is working with science programs as they're developing their proposals. Many of these now require or recommend education and outreach components. We've already worked with a number of groups within NCAR—in CGD, SCD, and HAO—to develop education supplements that can easily be slotted into their programs. So when they put a proposal in, we can give them an education section that can frequently leverage activities we have under way or are planning. For less than it would otherwise cost, they can have a significant education program involving activities such as professional development for educators, development of Web content, and participation in diversity programs.

We're very happy to work with scientists and the divisions themselves in helping to craft these education supplements and help develop ideas for them that fit their goals and the science they are proposing. It's a big thing to ask people that are focusing solely on science to suddenly step up to the plate to do something in education, and it just doesn't make much sense to ask them to have to develop all of that knowledge on their own. One of the functions of this office is to try to bring that expertise to the institution so that when people need it, there will be a place to go.

SN: There's probably no shortage of ideas about how to involve scientists in education and outreach—from establishing a speakers' bureau to encouraging participation in the meetings of the National Science Teachers Association. What's your sense of what the constraints are on scientists?

RJ: Certainly there are constraints. Some are placed on them by themselves, and others may be placed on them by the institution. I've heard from some scientists that they would appreciate more institutional support of their participation in education and outreach efforts. My view is that if you're lucky enough to be a scientist working at NCAR, you have a responsibility to contribute back to society. I would like to see an institution where scientists who really want to make a contribution in the education and outreach arena are actively encouraged by the institution to do so, and are rewarded for it in ways that really count, like having it recognized in their merit reviews. Of course, developing this office and helping us create the structures we're creating is part of taking it seriously. But I want to see NCAR scientists who are interested in making a contribution encouraged to do so. And I'd be happy to work with the scientists and NCAR management to help facilitate this process. •

For Roberta's views on the challenges of a dual-focus career, see Challenging choices. Notes from the workshop "Earth System Education Partnerships with Research Institutions," held at NCAR on 29–31 January, will appear soon at the workshop Web site.

Getting interactive: Windows to the Universe

Some four million users discovered Windows to the Universe this past year. The Web site brings a broad array of information about earth and space science to students, educators, and the general public via text, images, sound, movies, animations, and data sets.

The site was created at the University of Michigan with funding from NASA. It moved to UCAR with its director, Roberta Johnson, in summer 2000. Since arriving, Windows2U has more than tripled the activity on the UCAR server.

Windows2U offers three levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) for exploring the solar system, astronomy and its history, individual planets, geology, space weather, and a host of other topics. The site includes games, self-paced tutorials, and a special section devoted to art, books, and films related to earth and space science. The section on mythology includes material about the earth and sky from 20 different cultures around the world. Teacher resource pages include classroom activities, networking tools, and educational links.

The site's development team has tracked the domains from which visitors log on and the pages they visit most frequently. The team learned that Windows2U has a significant audience in the classroom, from K–12 through the undergraduate level. "It's being used by both teachers and students, and there's a continuing upward trend in use," says Roberta.

Windows2U has received over 50 awards to date, including "50 Best of the Web" from Popular Science and "Education Site Best Bet" from USA TODAY.

• ZG

The Education and Outreach Strategic Planning Committee

Rick Anthes (President's Office)
Al Cooper (ASP)
Steve Dickson (Director's Office)
Susan Foster (OEO)
Bob Harriss (ESIG)
Elisabeth Holland (ACD)
Karon Kelly (DLESE)
Tim Killeen (Director's Office)
Roberta Johnson (OEO), chair
Joe Lamos (COMET)
Peggy LeMone (MMM)
Mary Marlino (DLESE)
Cindy Schmidt (Government Affairs)
Katy Schmoll (F&A)
Tim Spangler (COMET)
Lucy Warner (Communications)
Morris Weisman (MMM)
Tom Windham (SOARS)

Who's doing what in OEO?

OEO's staff includes a mixture of long-time employees and recent hires located at both ML and FL. They include:

Susan Foster, associate director
Annette Lampert, administrator
Karen Smith-Herman, administrative assistant
Jennifer Leonard, associate scientist
Ryan Deardorff, software engineer
Sandra Henderson, codirector, LEARN, and principal investigator, CLIMATE
Heidi Lewis, science store manager

Education and Tour Program

Tim Barnes, program assistant
Linda Carbone, exhibits and informal science education coordinator
Rene Munoz, ETP coordinator

Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS)

Beverly Johnson, program administrator
Wendy Pagel, administrative assistant
Tom Windham, director


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UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes Monthly > February 2001 Search

Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Mon Feb 5 13:36:05 MST 2001