Jeff Terry is a Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology with a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics. He’s also a tinkerer, creator, and maker. Jeff plans and teaches creative, innovative courses that inspire students to connect the technology they use in everyday life to their underlying scientific principles.
Jeff: Thank you for having me.
JS: Now, you were one of our first guests in season one. How are you coping with your newfound fame?
Jeff: I'm greatly enjoying it. The amount of people who come up to me and tell me, "Thanks for working with 3M." It is staggering. I almost can't sit at restaurants anymore.
JS: Trust me, as 3M’s first Chief Science Advocate, I know fame can be hard.
Jeff: It is. There's no doubt about that. But I haven't had to stop teaching yet.
JS: That’s good, because teaching is exactly what I want to talk about this time. What are you and your colleagues hearing from the latest freshman class? Are they more or less scientifically literate? Have you seen changes in the last few years?
Jeff: Well, it's really hard to draw any conclusions from year to year variation. And so, the classes as they come in lately have different interests in many cases than other groups that came in over the past 20 years. And it's definitely been interesting to observe some of these changes as people's backgrounds have changed. People come in now with much more technical savvy, for lack of better words, than they did even 20 years ago. We're really starting to see groups come in who for much of their practical lives, haven't lived without iPhones and having the world at their fingertips. And so it's an interesting challenge for teaching because there people who are used to having access to information all the time. And so there are different challenges that have to be addressed when you work with students like this, things that we didn't face 10 years ago.
JS: What kinds of challenges?
Jeff: Well, so for example, attention spans might be a little shorter, ability to communicate is a little different. A lot of communication now is done by text rather than phone call. So, it's just a different manner of dealing with things. There's not a good or a bad to it, it's just different. And so you have to be able to move with some of these changes. Students expect to be able to quickly find information, and so you have to make sure that when you're dealing with them, you have information ready to provide.
JS: I wondered if that might be the case. They’re used to, if they need to know something, they can look it up in an instant. Is it a challenge to say: “No, no, these things are worth learning before you need to know. This is background information you need to have.” Is that part of the challenge?
Jeff: In some respects it is, because we have to decide how much background and what background is important to have now. And I think a lot of faculty do struggle with that in many ways. So for example, when I was a student, and I will go back into the dinosaur ages for that, but I had to have a much more focused knowledge base on what I was doing because getting access to information was hard. You had to go to the library, you had to physically find books. So, you had to memorize things in order to make good use of your time. On the other hand now, a lot of the things that I've memorized, I don't keep right at the top of my memory because it's faster to Google it than to retrieve it accurately in some cases. Some cases, "Oh, I know how to do this and oh, let me write it down. I can work it out from what I actually know." But that takes time and googling it is nearly immediate. So the question becomes, what becomes the right thing to know? What is the knowledge base, how wide should it be? When I can look up specifics, and that's not easy to fully decide.
JS: It’s definitely a fascinating evolution in the way we think about knowledge. Given this “in the moment” learning, do you feel like the kids that are coming in have enough of a background in science to get going? Or do you have to catch them up?
Jeff: Well, everybody has gaps, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, what's very common in science now is you put together teams of people to work together so that everybody is focused on their strength rather than having one person do everything. And so, I think this is a great development for science.
It's important to understand that you don't have to be great at everything to do science. You can have your little area that you just excel at and partner with other people to get the best work done. Because as a society, we want the best work done. We don't care if it's all done by a single person. In fact, nothing gets done by a single person anymore. So, if you're out there and you're struggling in one area of science or one area math, don't let that discourage you. There are other things that you can do. And so don't give up if you're really interested in science. The world is changing and I think it will become clearer as we continue to go that having a broad base from which you know how to do searching will be very valuable in science as opposed to being able to just have direct memorization of everything.
Having exposure to a lot of different fields allows you to attack problems from different viewpoints, and that's really important.
JS: Do you feel like Generation Z, these incoming freshmen, are excited about science?
Jeff: Well, there are certainly some students that are excited about science. There are others who have no interest at all, and I don't think that's a problem. I mean, how do you know different things? Diversity is good for society.
JS: Definitely. But then again, all of these students need to learn about science. Hopefully many will continue to explore it. How do you engage the ones who aren’t feeling it?
Jeff: Yeah, that's always a challenge. So for example, I often teach courses that have diverse populations of students. And some students are interested in physics, some that are interested in chemistry, some who might be interested in engineering. And they all think a little differently about problems. And so, if you only discuss one exact type of problem, it's really hard to keep everybody interested. So, what I find I do have to do is move on to a bunch of different problems. I still teach the fundamental physics that I need to be teaching.
Jeff: There are always some barriers that people face. Not everybody comes in with the same level of preparation. And that can sometimes scare people. The problem is, as a faculty member, how can I address that? Because not everybody comes in with the same level of preparation and they never will. So, one way of doing it, and it's the way that we have historically done things, is the people who are better prepared race to the front of the class. And that's not always what you want because then they never learn how to struggle. And the students who come in a little bit less prepared sometimes struggle more, and then they get discouraged and then walk away. So one of the things I do is often try to introduce something that nobody else has seen before. So I might ask students to code in a different way than they've done computer coding before. Causing everybody to struggle together, and when everybody struggles on the same material, you can get different groups who grow faster. And this sometimes is not appreciated by the students who normally wouldn't struggle in class, but sometimes really helps those who have seen the people being successful because they have got better background.
JS: That sounds like a great way to encourage the kids who are struggling… and the kind of thing that will make the successful kids furious at the time, then later they’ll appreciate what you were trying to do.
Jeff: Well, you know, the thing is we really learned from our failures. So we fail how we work to overcome that. And so, if you don't get that struggle anywhere, when you first hit it and you always hit it in science, sometimes you don't know how to react. So science, there's a tremendous amount of failure in science, you do an experiment it doesn't work out the way that you wanted it to. So you have to figure out what you need to change to get the desired outcome, or what you can learn from the failed experiment. So some people don't like when you say an experiment fails, it didn't really give you the results you wanted, but you always learn something from it. And so it's how you put these failed experiences, the struggles together to eventually get moving in the right direction to accomplish what you're trying to do. That is really the learning experience and it's beneficial to get that earlier rather than later because some people who have never struggled when they finally hit that point of "I don't know what to do," they don't always know how to overcome it. And so struggling a little early, it is I think good for everybody.
Yeah. Unfortunately, like I said, a lot of people never get this. And so, this is something that an education I think should be tried a little bit more often and earlier. When we teach science in high school and elementary school, we tend to do with experiments that we know are going to work. And I think that's not always the best idea. I think it's good to do some experiments that don't behave how you think they will. Do some experiments that aren't going to work, because it does teach you different things than when everything just works as designed.
JS: I definitely agree that future scientists should fail early and often. It’s such a big part of the process. So, shifting gears from the classroom to the lab: What’s going on in your field that excites you right now?
Jeff: Oh that's a tough one. There's a lot of interesting science going on out there. So, I tend to focus on energy because I think it's one of society's fundamental problems. And so, we face some serious issues with climate change. And so, the question is how are we going to guarantee our energy supply, whether it's for electricity, whether it's for heating homes, whether it's for transportation and getting to and from work. We have to make sure that that energy supply exists, but we need to try and reduce the carbon emission. So, some of the things that I'm always sending and seeing or how we can make better energy sources that are carbon free. So, there are a lot of interesting fusion topics coming around. Those fusions systems need new materials, new magnets. And so there's a lot of fundamental physics involved in all of these things. Renewable energy needs energy storage. And so with storage you have the physics of batteries and battery materials that has to be explored and understood. We would love to have more electric cars. I personally drive one and love it. I would never go back to a gasoline-only-powered car ever again. And just having the instant torque from the electric motors is incredible. And so there's just everyone really needs to study and improve research that you've been doing natural resources.
The toughest thing with any form of energy is actually storing it. And so, if we look at our electricity supply, all the electricity that we use is created immediately as we use it. And so, that's something that most people don't understand. So, it's very hard for us to take, for example, wind energy if the wind is blowing at night and use that during the day. It's also hard for us to take solar energy from the day, store that to use at night. And frankly, it's going to be very hard for us to solve those problems because the energy storage that we have just isn't significant right now. We have to somehow do a little bit better and developing different tools. Maybe there'll be breakthroughs in the future, but for right now, it's really hard to go ahead and add these storage things in. Right now our best bet is actually using water that's pumped up a hill and then falls back down. Everybody likes to think about batteries, but we just don't have that many of them, and they’re made out of metals that are rare and hard to find: lithium, carbon. And it's going to be hard to get enough batteries.
JS: Yes, I read about a company, a spinoff from Google, actually. They’re working on storing energy as heat in molten salt and cold in antifreeze fluid. It seems like these mechanical methods might be a good supplement to making bigger, better batteries.
Jeff: I think that is probably going to be the case. I have hopes that we can get better superconductors and get superconducting storage at some point, but these are all areas of research that needs sciences and engineers to come work on.
JS: Jeff, this has been fantastic, thank you. One final question: Simply put, what about science brings you joy?
Jeff: Well, to me there's a great cartoon that basically describes research as pushing out the circle of knowledge. And to me the greatest feeling is when you have been pushing at the edge of knowledge and you finally make a dent and push the wall forward. And for that one moment in time before you explain what you know to everybody, you're the one person on the planet who knows that bit of information. And that is such a cool feeling.
JS: That’s a feeling every scientist knows and loves, for sure. Jeff, thanks so much for joining me.
We know future scientists won’t need to carry a huge amount of data in their heads. They’ll have more information at their fingertips than any generation in history. The challenge that science educators have is twofold:
First, we need to make sure they have a firm foundation in the fundamentals of science, things they need to know before they turn to search engines.
Second, we need to foster excitement and enthusiasm in students, meeting them where they are and showing them that science can spark enthusiasm, innovation, even wonder.
Thanks for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.
I try to introduce something that nobody has seen before, causing everybody to struggle together, and when everybody struggles on the same material, you can get all groups to grow faster.