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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Complex Science for the Masses

Glenn Ross and students

At the Maryland Science Center, a Johns Hopkins presentation called “Dark Matters” is projected behind Peter Yancone, director of education at the center.

Photo: Will Kirk/HIPS

Scientists are adept at talking about their research with peers. But ask them to explain what they do (and why it's important) to the cashier at the local grocery store or the mother of four who lives across the street, and they admit to feeling, well, less than competent.

"The truth is that some of us are better than others at talking to the general public about our research," says Jonathan A. Bagger, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Physics and Astronomy and vice provost for graduate and postdoctoral programs and special projects. "Being able to communicate is important, and it's something we need to work on, for sure."

That's why Bagger was among a handful of Arts and Sciences scientists and graduate students who recently collaborated with curators at the Maryland Science Center to create two exhibits and a demonstration that elucidate their research for the general public.

The work was done under the terms of a National Science Foundation grant called Internship in Public Science Education, or IPSE for short.

"The objective of the grant is to help researchers learn how to clearly communicate their science to a general public audience," says Louise Pasternack, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and coordinator of the IPSE grant. "A secondary purpose is to create a model for a sustainable and enduring partnership between Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Science Center so that scientists can continue to work on outreach to the public."

Also involved in the grant on Johns Hopkins' end were Alumni Centennial Professor Alexander Szalay, of Physics and Astronomy; and Professor Gerald Meyer, of the Department of Chemistry. Physics and Astronomy graduate students Sam Carlisle and Christopher Wells assisted Szalay and Bagger; Amanda Fond worked with Meyer; Jordan Raddick, an instructional designer in physics and astronomy, also worked with Szalay.

Peter Yancone, director of education for the Maryland Science Center, spearheaded the effort for the museum.

"Our role was obviously not to do the actual research but to be interpreters who helped the Johns Hopkins scientists bring that research to a more general audience," says Yancone, who graduated from JHU with a degree in earth and planetary sciences in 1976.

The end results of many months of meetings between the Johns Hopkins researchers and the Science Center are two exhibits about astrophysics—a smart-board presentation called "Mapping the History of the Universe," featuring Szalay's work with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Galaxy Zoo, and "Dark Matters," a planetarium show that capitalizes on Bagger's research in particle physics and the astronomical topics of dark matter and dark energy—as well as a demonstration about nanotechnology that includes information about Meyer's work on nanowires and their possible use in medical science. The demonstration includes video clips from Johns Hopkins showing magnetized wires being used to manipulate and organize cells.

"It's fun to observe kids and families as they watch the demonstration and it dawns on them that there is this whole nanoscale world where things don't behave in the same way that they behave in our world," says Yancone.

Both exhibits and the demonstration are available to audiences at the Maryland Science Center, and the center is working to export the planetarium show to other museums, science centers, and some colleges as well.


Related Link

Maryland Science Center