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From Working Scientist To Education Advocate: A Tale Of Two Careers

As career paths become more circuitous than ever, it's not uncommon for people to change job directions after decades of success in a given field. Below are profiles of two influential scientists who have decided to turn their energies toward the improvement of K-12 education, with atmospheric science as the leveraging agent.

Photo of Bev Lynds and Perry Samson Bev Lynds and Perry Samson sample current weather conditions using BlueSkies, the point-and-click software created by Perry. (Photo by Bob Bumpas.)

Perry Samson, BlueSkies

On the monitor before you is a map of the United States showing the frontal systems and cloud cover from the past hour. A constellation of cities and towns appears as dots. Bring your cursor atop one, and a box instantly appears with the [current] weather conditions for that site. Click once and you get the local forecast or climate data. Choose the zoom tool and you get a regional or state view of the satellite image with accompanying city dots. Further zooms bring images where the dots represent K-12 school weather reports for the day.

This program, BlueSkies, is the answer to a weather addict's prayer. It offers real-time, accessible information in a pleasing format. It is the brainchild of Perry Samson, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Michigan for the past 15 years. And, says Perry, "It's a weekend hobby that got out of hand."

Perry, who is visiting the Walter Orr Roberts Institute on an education- oriented detail, developed BlueSkies while tinkering with his students to find a local solution to weather-data access. "I am not a morning person and was having trouble getting weather information organized in time for a 9:00 a.m. survey class. I asked a grad student, Jeff Masters, if there was some way I could get access to the data from our Unidata feed at home, then go to class and sound halfway intelligent." At the same time, earth- science teachers in Michigan were looking for a quick and easy way to access weather data.

The first service created was text-only but was made widely available and quickly grew to 100,000 accesses a week after publicity on the Internet. The follow-up project, begun in 1992 with support from NSF, was dubbed the Weather Underground, whose name alludes to the 1960s leftist faction. "There's still one member of the Weather Underground unaccounted for," says Perry, "and the students know I was more radical in my younger days."

The next generation of service was the creation of point-and-touch Internet graphics in a Gopher client named BlueSkies. Though it has Mosaic-like features, it works on the principle of graphics with information embedded, rather than the text-with-imagery-embedded format of Mosaic. Blue Skies was officially released on Groundhog Day 1994 and is fast becoming a classic of the wired age. Last September it was chosen as one of 11 "Cool Tools for the Internet" by Apple Computer, putting it in the company of Gopher and Mosaic.

Perry is now working to get BlueSkies and companion curricula into schools nationwide. The soon-to-be-released version 2, which Perry promises is "really, really cool," features a pull-down globe that spins to the desired location. A student can enter a local observation and in minutes see those data and comments appear on BlueSkies. "It's a chance for them to have their name up in lights worldwide. Plus, it'll be interactive, so they can answer questions from other students: 'Is it still snowing hard?' or 'Were the trees bent over in today's storm?' "

Students and BlueSkies are a natural mix, says Perry. "The enthusiasm is coming from the classrooms. You go to a school and draw graphics, and people see the value of the Internet in a way they only knew abstractly before. I get many testimonials to the effect of, 'Now I see why we should be involved with the Internet.' " While in Boulder, Perry is collaborating with the University of Colorado's Nancy Songer, creator of a weather- based curriculum--Kids as Global Scientists--that makes extensive use of Blue Skies. "We're now planning to go way beyond meteorology into interactions among hydrology, agriculture, health, and so on."

Where does UCAR come in? Perry intends to "wander the halls at NCAR, talk with senior scientists, and find out what they're producing graphically or textually that could be of value to the K-12 education community." He envisions that a climate modeler's "electronic wastebasket" could be adapted as a learning tool for precollege students while enhancing NCAR's visibility in the world at large. Perry also sees an important role for UCAR in facilitating outreach at UCAR universities. "It's something that the universities will and should do on their own, but UCAR can provide templates to help. One of my tasks is to offer templates for beginning an outreach program based on my experience."

Perry's involvement in K-12 education hasn't precluded his own research; he remains a mission scientist in the Southern Oxidants Study. He also recognizes that blending research and education efforts is not as easy as it sounds. "I'm aware of sensitivities about scientists getting involved in education. The reward structure isn't always there. So I advise the junior faculty and scientists in attendance at my talks to leave the room. The senior scientists, on the other hand, have nothing to lose and a tremendous amount to gain by being involved."

If nothing else, says Perry, the psychic paychecks are considerable. "The response from these teachers is so warming--it fills you with the desire to do the right things. Furthermore, I argue that the atmospheric sciences are precisely the right area to show the value of the Internet in science education. We need to jump on this opportunity. It is a tremendous opportunity for our field to play a leadership role in educational reform and for us, as scientists, to strut our stuff."

Bev Lynds, SKYMATH director

Let's say Disney wants to establish a theme park in a certain area. How do you decide if the area's climate will be good for establishing the park? If not, where else would you recommend putting it?

Such are the kinds of questions that middle-school students will be addressing by the latter 1990s through SKYMATH, an NSF-funded project based at UCAR. The project is headed by a woman of multitudinous talents: astronomer, educator, advocate for minorities, and SCUBA diver. Bev Lynds has been here since 1990 as Unidata's program's education coordinator, all the while pushing to get SKYMATH off the ground.

Over the next three years, NSF's Education and Human Resources Directorate is slated to provide $600,000 for developing and testing a module for teaching math to students via real-time weather and climate data. "It's strictly a math program," says Bev, "but it will use physical data- -the concepts of change and variables, measurement, and the use of large data sets." Blue Skies is part of the plan, along with Kids as Global Scientists.

One of SKYMATH's most dramatic departures from standard math curricula, according to Bev, is its open-endedness. "The basic idea is that there's no answer in the back of the book. Nor is there an answer in the back of the book for life."

Bev clearly relishes the idea of challenging students to use math rather than simply learn it. It's an approach gaining currency in education. "In recent years, I think we've been getting on the right track. It appears that the new approaches are beginning to turn around math and science education." The evidence is subtle but real, she says. "We don't yet have the assessment tools that measure what we want to measure. But I hear it in reports from the educators, and you can see it in the enthusiasm of the response to programs that Perry Samson and Nancy Songer have created."

After earning her Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1955, Bev launched a noteworthy career in studying the interstellar medium. Dark nebulae (regions of star formation) that Bev catalogued in the Milky Way are now known as Lynds objects. As her research progressed, Bev found herself more and more interested in broadening the astronomical community. "What really got me going was sitting at an AAA meeting [American Astronomers Association] and seeing nothing but white males in the audience. I began thinking that diversity would enrich the attitudes and viewpoints of my colleagues."

While teaching at the University of Arizona in the 1960s, Bev served as the first faculty sponsor for Arizona's student chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). This service, along with education-oriented visits to Arizona reservations, earned Bev the Chief Manuelito Award of the Navajo nation. She continues her affiliation with AISES, which is based in Boulder (and welcomes volunteers).

Although committed to furthering Native American science education, Bev has pondered the cross-cultural issues involved. "I don't know if I was doing the right thing by encouraging the cutthroat attitudes needed to succeed in science. I think the general feeling among Native Americans is, 'If I win, it causes someone else to lose.' Things have improved in the science community, though. I think we're moving from individualistic scientists to a more cooperative spirit with more teamwork."

Bev is now preparing for a consciousness-raising session with colleagues: a workshop for training space scientists in precollege education methods. The NASA-funded meeting will take place 12-15 March and include people "at all stages in their careers." She also is working to involve NCAR and other UCAR scientists in a review of proposed local, state, and national standards for science and math education, and she represents UCAR as one of five facilitators for the Boulder Valley Connect Project, an NSF-funded Statewide Systemic Initiative in Math and Science Education. What drives Bev to juggle so many projects? "I'm not satisfied unless I feel that I'm doing some kind of service to give back to the community the support I've gotten." --BH

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Last revised: Wed Mar 29 12:41:55 MST 2000