Among her colleagues, Angela Speck, a professor of astrophysics and director of MU’s astronomy program, is recognized as an internationally respected authority on stardust — the “material,” as she describes it, “that is ejected by dying stars.” Outside the academy, however, she is known chiefly as the outsized personality who tirelessly works to promote public understanding and appreciation of science. It’s a role the native of Yorkshire, England, seems uniquely well-qualified for. Speck recently spoke to Illumination about sharing science with a broad audience, and why good communication matters at all levels of learning.
In just the past couple of years the University — thanks chiefly to your efforts — has established an astrophysics degree program. Why was this a priority?
Many people are motivated to study science because of astronomy. It is something you learn from an early age. It is a gateway subject to all sorts of other science. Consequently, offering an astrophysics program attracts people to MU who might otherwise choose to go elsewhere. They don’t all become astrophysicists – many discover they enjoy other aspects of science — but we wouldn’t see them at all if we didn’t have the program.
What does it take to make a scientist an effective teacher?
I would argue that if you can’t explain what you do to an elementary school kid then you probably don’t fully understand it. Any scientist can be a good teacher if they put in the effort. The question is, what makes a scientist want to be able to communicate their work to non-experts? It helps that I am an extrovert (unusual amongst physicists and academics), but more than that – I feel it is important to be able to explain to everyone why their tax dollars are spent on me.
You’ve indeed worked hard to share science with audiences outside the academy, something many researchers are uncomfortable doing. Why is public outreach important to you?
I don’t really distinguish between formal or informal education. Whether I’m giving a public talk, running an event at the observatory or teaching a class, it is all the communication of science. I would go further and say that the same skill is needed in presenting research to our peers. We have to communicate our science at all levels, whether it is to convince the public that what we do is worthwhile, or whether it is to convince our peers that our research is solid.
We often hear that the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in preparing K-12 students for STEM-related degrees and careers. Is that your sense?
I think the more troubling issue is that our education system is geared towards educating white men and we still lose women and minorities from our pipeline. Whether we are truly falling behind on preparing kids for science depends on what you think kids need to be prepared.
What do you think middle and high school students require, and what can institutions like Mizzou do to help them get it?
Essentially they need to do as much math as possible. For encouraging minority students into STEM fields – we need to get more creative. The recent events at MU have opened up conversations about how best to do this.
At a time when much of the world’s focus seems fixed on terrestrial concerns, what claim should the universe and its mysteries have on our attention?
There are many ways to answer that question. Some experiments cannot be done on earth. For instance, the study of planetary nebulae allowed us to test quantum mechanics ideas for the structure of atoms. We could not test these ideas on Earth because low-density gases do not produce enough light to be detectable. Another argument is that it’s part of the human experience to explore, to go there because there is there. It is uniquely human to seek knowledge just for the sake of knowledge. Astronomy and astrophysics sit at the intersection of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and real practical implications. My question is — why wouldn’t we study the universe?