Department of Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences
Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences
What are you currently working on in the area of public engagement?
I am continuing to present 20-25 invited presentations annually to a wide-range of public audiences in the northeastern US dealing with (a) NASA Astrobiology research, and (b) the use of LiDAR images (Light Detection And Ranging) to measure colonial age stone walls in the northeastern United States. For the NASA topic, people are intrigued to hear of NASA’s spectacular efforts to determine the processes that led to the origin of life on Earth, and the efforts to determine if life exists on any of the more than 4,000 planets that have been discovered (so far) orbiting other stars. On the LiDAR topic, people have been amazed to learn that the stone walls in New York and New England have a combined length of at least 250,000 miles (i.e., distance between Earth and the Moon; 10 times around the Earth’s equator) and how they are being used to determine the drift of the Earth’s magnetic field during the last 300 years. I have also been providing landowners in rural settings with processed LiDAR images of their properties (at no cost to those individuals), which they have been so grateful to receive. Finally, in collaboration with several other UAlbany faculty, I have been assisting the Vice President for Research with the preparation of the draft of a proposal to NSF’s INCLUDES program (‘Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science’).
How did you get involved in this work?
Public engagement has been an aspect of my work since 1990. The rationale, motivation, and justification have simple. As a faculty member at a public research university, a portion of my salary is paid by New York State taxpayers. In addition, funding for my research from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA is from US taxpayers. Therefore, I decided long ago that it was my obligation to convey the excitement and value of this research to any members of the public who were interested in learning where a portion of their taxes were going. Since, in recent years, both NSF and NASA have encouraged more faculty throughout the US to become publicly engaged, it has been gratifying to have been doing this for many years in advance of others having realized its value.
What is the greatest reward in your publicly engaged work?
The greatest reward has been working with high school STEM teachers throughout New York State, middle and high school students, Lifelong Learning Communities, and other professional partners. The goal has been to inform the public of the exciting results of ongoing scientific research, specifically in my fields of geochemistry and planetary science. My challenge has always been to inspire and engage members of the public through my enthusiasm and up-to-date, jargon-free presentations. In part, these efforts have been, and continue to be, to offer a positive, upbeat alternative to the often prevailing, national malaise of cynicism, under-achievement, and discouragement. It has been a privilege to have delivered more than 500 invited presentations to many thousands at different venues, and to millions via local and national radio/TV/online. It has been a privilege to partner with outstanding, inspired professionals (especially high school STEM teachers, Science Teachers Association of New York State, and Association for the Cooperative Advancement of Science and Education) to make a real difference in people’s lives.
What impact has this work had on you? ...on your students? ...on community members?
Albert Einstein issued a challenge to all professionals when he wrote, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Since the concepts involved my research (and most everyone else’s) do not approach those of Einstein’s work on General Relativity, I have no excuse (and neither do other professionals) for not being able to communicate my work to the public (and, of course, to UAlbany students!) in a meaningful way. Consequently, I have always had little respect for pretentious ‘professionals’ who opt to mystify and/or insult their audiences with unintelligible jargon to cloak their own deficiencies. My own understanding has increased when I have made deliberate efforts to explain the topics simply (i.e., Einstein’s challenge), and then use mathematics to subsequently strengthen the concepts (in the classroom and to the public).
About a decade ago at the encouragement of my wonderful wife, Susan, I began to keep unsolicited e-mails, cards, and letters received from former students, STEM teachers, and the public. The folder is now more than 7-inches thick! Common themes mentioned in those items have been the positive impact of my genuine enthusiasm, strong work ethic, and sincere commitment to them. In addition, seeing the clear excitement of students and the public during my presentations, and hearing insightful questions and comments that confirm that they both understood (and wanted to learn more) has always been a delightful measure of an audience’s engagement.
Being invited back by many community organizations to provide the latest updates on new knowledge is always personally gratifying.
Partnering with high school STEM teachers with exceptional talents who can bring special knowledge, aligned with New York State learning standards, to inspire, engage, and educate their students. This brings an essential element of leverage to these federally funded efforts, since sporadic visits to individual classrooms by university faculty will usually have little impact. Having these efforts assessed for their effectiveness by professional partners has provided essential guidance.
What are your future plans for your publicly engaged work?
As a lifelong learner myself, I continue to be active, and will remain so after retirement, with publicly engaged work since life is too exciting to ever become complacent. Directing one’s talents, passion, and energy toward purposeful tasks that address local, regional, and national goals is personally rewarding. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” Throughout my career at UAlbany, publicly engaged work has been, and will remain, an important element of my life’s purpose.