The Role of the Scientific Researcher in Education
When I came to the University of New Hampshire I discovered a deeply rooted commitment to bringing undergraduate students into the research programs. Professor Jim Ryan once said to me, "If an undergraduate student graduates from here without research experience, it isn't for lack of opportunity." This idea resonated with me as I had performed a small amount of outreach work when I was at the University of Delaware and so I began to explore this idea with enthusiasm.
As a soft money researcher, my involvement in education cannot be within the traditional classroom. I work to bring students into my research where they can gain experience, learn space science, and explore the reality of scientific research outside the structured environment of the classroom. It also enables me to continue being paid while I work with students as the sole support I receive comes from my grants and contracts. With an initial investment of time and the right selection of a research topic, undergraduates can make very useful and cost-effective contributions to the research program.
I work with graduate students, undergraduates and even high school students. Each presents its own unique problems and opportunities. For the graduate student, finding funding to support the student may be the biggest obstacle. Explaining to them that they will be treated as professionals and that professional behavior is expected may be the most essential lesson. With undergraduate students, I have benefited from having attracted some highly motivated and surprisingly responsible young people to my research program. I have also benefited from collaborations with some remarkably talented and enjoyable high school teachers and university faculty who have greatly broadened the work and added immeasurably to the results.
As a Research Professor I am not called upon to work with difficult or unmotivated students. The very real problems of education do not enter my office. I cannot solve the problems that face education today and I am not called to teach a class of thirty or more students. I am fortunate to work one-on-one with bright, motivated students and that experience is both easy and a joy.
Philosophy: Young people who have recognized their own interest in science, but who do not yet have the mathematics or physics skills to perform more advanced scientific research, quickly adapt to the opportunities of data analysis. Once drawn into the science, and as they learn to recognize the science they are chasing and distinguish that from other dynamics they may be finding in data plots, they begin to learn scientific programming and operating systems beyond what they have experienced in school. The core physics can be understood at intuitive levels and if they stay with the project through their undergraduate careers they will learn the advanced concepts and mathematics needed to frame the underlying dynamics. While there is a strong desire for the students to learn the fundamental physics, the more immediate goal is for students to learn to think through complex ideas and challenge their work until they can prove it is correct. There is no answer in the back of the book for these projects. The students work without a net and need to learn to validate their efforts. Those skills needed to attack complex problems and validate their results are the primary goal of research in the early phase of a scientific career.
When bright, motivated students ask for research experience, there are only 2 cardinal sins for the faculty: To bore the student with projects that lack challenge and opportunity or to overwhelm them with a subject that is beyond their reach. Many professors believe that the second is the most likely outcome, but I find that the first is more often the case. College students have already experienced at least 12 years of classroom lectures. If they are asking for additional work, then they are motivated and looking for a challenge. They need guidance, structure and explanation, but when there is a goal and a path to reaching that goal their own motivation will carry them through.
I also believe that by bringing an interested young student into my research program I give them a mental and sometimes emotional home within the university. UNH students form a supportive and collaborative community, but I have keen memories of being 1 in 40,000 students at the University of Maryland many years ago. A student with a place in my research group has a unique identity and someone taking a personal interest in their education. I believe that can make a significant difference. I have seen students steadily improve their classroom performance after beginning to work on a research project and I believe that having a place in a research group was a part of that growth.
Undergraduate Research: Since coming to UNH I have mentored and supported the following undergraduate students:
The above students have worked on projects including space weather, the solar cycle, interplanetary shocks, shock acceleration, the waves excited by interstellar pickup ions, and turbulence. In some instances the student worked with other faculty in addition to myself in a collaborative venture where they were exposed to a broader range of ideas and techniques. At least five of the above students have since received their PhD’s in space physics (Vogt, Tessein, Stawarz, Joyce, and Meredith) while another nine have earned their M.S., have attended or are attending graduate school (MacBride, Vorotnikov, Winder, Cannon, Coburn, Aggarwal, Atkins, Lamarche, and Moser). Two (Vorotnikov and Goelzer) were actually Chemical Engineering majors looking for interesting research. They graduated with published research in both fields. Some students have decided that what I do is not what they are looking to find and have moved on to other faculty and other research. Many have gone on to jobs in industry and teaching.
I have learned to adopt the same generosity shown to me when I was a student: When students have worked hard on a project and understand the work they become lead author on the paper. They also help write the paper in a collaborative fashion where they gain experience in scientific writing and learn LaTeX in the process. Undergraduate students working with me have been responsible for 44 scientific publications to date:
Whenever possible, I try to take the more experienced students to appropriate conferences such as SHINE where they can broaden their exposure to the field in a supportive environment and gain some experience presenting their work. SHINE has a student day where student-led tutorials introduce students to a range of topics previously outside their experience. I do require that they have completed a project before they go to a meeting. It is important that they realize that hard work can bring them to a conclusion where they can instruct older researchers and tell them something they didn't already know. Experience is not the ability to develop new ideas. It is the knowledge of what ideas will be fruitful and how to reach a useful conclusion.
Project SMART: Since 2004 I have also been privileged to participate in the Space Science Module of UNH Project SMART. This is a one-month, summer residential outreach program for motivated high school students considering a career in science. We have been blessed by the involvement of three high school physics teachers of exceptional talent and innovative ideas. Students in the SMART program spend half their time working with the teachers where they learn core physics and electronics, build small scientific instruments that include data handling capabilities, and fly those instruments on a high altitude balloon. They spend the other half of their time working with UNH faculty performing research tasks that generally involve either data analysis or hardware construction. That program has produced some excellent UNH undergraduates while other SMART students have gone on to other top-flight colleges and universities. Several have returned to work with me including McLaurin, Fisher and Schroeder (above) and two current high school students who are analyzing Voyager data. One of those high school students is currently analyzing Voyager observations of waves due to interstellar pickup ions and has been accepted into R.P.I. with a $100,000 scholarship. The other is preparing a data base for solar wind turbulence studies and has been offered a Presidential Scholarship and admittance into the UNH Honors Program while he considers his options. I expect both to have publications during the coming year.
We keep SMART fun while making it challenging for the students. The program is informal, but structured. The challenges are considerable, but they are kept diverse and constantly changing. Somewhat to everyone's surprise, the students have developed a reputation for arriving early and staying late every day. When challenged, students can show remarkable dedication. At the end of the month students fly a balloon to 100,000 feet carrying instruments they have built. The flight pulls together a great many things they have learned over the course of the month and is always a fun day. On the last day they present posters describing their research. The research topics are carefully selected with the necessary tools available, but the task of understanding the work and then performing it with care places significant demands on the students. It is amazing what they have learned and accomplished in that short period of time.
We published a paper describing the balloon component to the SMART program: https://eos.org/project-updates/balloon-launches-introduce-students-to-space-science.
More information on SMART is available at: http://projectsmartspacescience.sr.unh.edu/.
A great pleasure that has come from the SMART program is the chance to collaborate with remarkable high school physics teachers. Two of those teachers were able to attend the 2017 Fall Meeting of the AGU this past December to present a poster on our SMART effort. They can speak to other teachers better than I can and their presentation of the work was stellar. The trip also afforded them the opportunity to attend numerous lectures on current research that I anticipate will find its way into their classrooms in the coming years.
The SMART collaboration has taught me the value of different people coming together with different tools and experiences. I cannot begin to do what the high school teachers in the program can do. Their training and experience is orthogonal to my own. University professors seeking to have an impact with high school students need to involve teachers who are trained to understand young minds. The supreme act of arrogance would be to tell teachers what or how to teach physics. However, if we can make useful physics available to experienced teachers, they can select what works best in the classroom. It was the teachers who created the balloon program that has become such a successful aspect of SMART with UNH faculty suggesting physics that might be accomplished with the flight. The teachers designed the inexpensive instruments that we fly based in part on the science discussions we have. Each person contributed their talents and experience toward a common goal by listening to one another.
Space Weather Underground: Together with Nathan Schwadron, I have begun a collaboration with six local high schools where students build flux-gate magnetometers from commercially available SAM-III kits. This gives interested students the opportunity to learn analog and digital circuit design and soldering techniques. Schools plan to use these instruments in two ways: They will have a magnetometer in the classroom for magnetic field demonstrations and they will deploy magnetometers in remote parts of campus so that we can build an array of ground-based magnetometers to study ionospheric currents.
The construction of the magnetometers is structured and well-documented. However, their deployment requires new solutions to engineering problems involving power, data handling, and accurate time tags for the data. The schools are developing multiple solutions to these problems. They are developing photovoltaics so that remote sites need not have power. Students are developing data handling electronics using inexpensive chip sets from the "Maker Movement". Single-board radio transmitters and receivers are providing data downlinks without the need to go to the magnetometer on a regular basis. GPS cards are providing accurate location and time tags. A distributed array of GPS cards will provide additional scientific value later. Several student teams are leading the development of these solutions and providing guidelines for other schools to follow. Eventually, the data will be collected at a central site to be used by students and researchers alike. Space Weather Underground brings electronics, engineering and space physics into the high school classroom.
Once we have a well-developed set of engineering solutions, we hope to expand the magnetometer array to include more schools covering a greater range of distances. In the meantime, the student teams will be presenting their work at the UNH Undergraduate Research Conference in May 2017. There are plans to continue student involvement in the analysis and interpretation of the data.
At age 61, I have had the opportunity to work on a diverse set of interesting physical problems.
I have been blessed by many generous and insightful colleagues.
However, it is the opportunity to work with young people that keeps the work fresh and interesting.
New problems come and go.
New challenges reinvigorate.
It is the enthusiasm of young people that reminds me of why I got into this business.
I am indebted to them.
Charles W. Smith