Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why Outreach is So Important to UNC Charlotte Professors

Teaching requires a strong passion for helping others and a patience rarely found in most people. For some, it's just a job, but for others, it's a life style. There are many professors at UNC Charlotte who have chosen teaching as their life style, working tirelessly in and out of the classroom to help better other people. With the Science Expo coming up later this year, it's time we talked with few professors and learn why it's so important to them that they continue to teach outside their classrooms.

An eager crowd watching science at play.
Catherine Qualtrough is a faculty member in UNC Charlotte's Department of Physics and Optical Science. When not teaching class, Dr. Qualtrough works to ensure that the UNC Charlotte campus has what it needs to expand its astronomy program. As a matter of fact, this year she helped finalize the creation of the campus's new observatory.

 "I've always been very passionate about communicating science," says Qualtrough. She started doing outreach to people outside her classes as early as her graduate studies in Cambridge, UK. Qualtrough has volunteered for the Science Expo before, stating that she "really appreciate(s) the opportunity to be a part of the ScienceExpo at UNC Charlotte because it is an event that appeals to a wide age-group range." Though she enjoys her work thoroughly, she is not blind to the challenge of communicating science in a way that is interesting while also relevant to the people she is teaching.

All of her hard work will be noticed at this years Science Expo, as she plans to utilize the observatory as much as possible. "The observatory offers a lot of opportunities to give people a first-hand experience of science, and astronomy is a field that is exciting to very young students through adults." With a star party planned, the visitors will get a chance to use equipment and learn more about astronomy and science education in general.
A group trying out a steam cannon at last year's Science Expo
Physics and Optics professor Greg Gbur shares Qualtrough's passion for outreach work. "Outreach to K-12 students and, indeed, to all levels of education and the public is highly important," he says. Gbur talks passionately about how our society is becoming more and more technological, and therefore science based, it is imperative that the stigma and fear of science and math be thrown aside. "Much of the time, this fear comes at a young age. I like to reach out to students at every age level as much as possible to show them that math and science is not only fun, but comprehensible."

Gbur supports every form of outreach, from science fairs and science expos like the one UNC Charlotte holds every year, to simple demonstrations, public lectures or even blog posts to allow scientists to connect to the public and show them what science is and what they can learn. "Once you get past the terminology and get some practice in fundamentals, it is a wonderful activity that allows a better understanding of the world and the ability to do some truly amazing things."

Thomas Schmedake Considers outreach opportunities as a challenge. "Outreach opportunities such as the Science Expo are particularly fun and challenging, because they force me to express concepts and explanations differently than when speaking with a colleague or student," says Schmedake. According to Schmedake, having to talk without technical jargon helps a teacher to get to the bottom of what they are teaching without being able to 'talk' around the subject. "I find my understanding of concepts often improves when I take the time to think about how I can express it to a general audience."
Dr. Schmedake showing mindful students how it's done.
Schmedake also enjoys the anticipation and excitement of the audience to learn what he has to offer. "Luckily as a chemist, I have a lot of  options for demos that combine intellectual and entertainment value," he says. The excitement of the audience also helps tie into his feeling of responsibility as an academicHaving had a lifetime of dedicated teachers, museum staff, and civic leaders, to inspire him to his career, Schmedake knows just how important it is for someone to get out there and just talk with the people. "I find it very hard to say no whenever I am asked to return the favor."

Chemist Dr. Michael Walter
Chemistry professor Dr. Michael Walter feels similarly to Schmedake. "I wanted to participate in getting the word out to the Charlotte community about some of the awesome research and outreach happening at UNC Charlotte (especially in the chemistry department)." This includes introducing projects to the crowd, such as the "Juice from Juice" project Walter exhibited at last year's Science Expo. With a ciriculum aimed at high school students, the project was a roaring success from last year, with participants creating solar energy using blackberry juice."We hope to run a similar activity this spring for the 2013 Expo," Walter notes. Aside from outreach on UNC Charlotte's campus, Walter and his research team work to participate in outreach on other campuses as well, such as UNC Chapel Hill.

These are all just a few examples of professors working hard at teaching, even when they are off the university clock. It's amazing to see such high spirits for teaching outside the classroom. These professors are engaged because they know their outreach is important. The world is becoming increasingly connected and competitive,  and as we start to compete with a global market in research and science we need to attract more people to these fields. Faculty outreach projects like these may seem small, but added up, they matter. They are perfect examples of what is necessary for the future.

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