Physics prof pushes for greater communication in sciences

On Nov. 14, Dr. James A. Stith came to Vassar and delivered two lectures surrounding the communication of science. Stith has devoted his life to teaching and to physics. Growing up on a Virginia farm, Stith found himself consistently enthralled with the way things work and interact with one another.

Laced between anecdotes of homemade ice cream and family dinners, Stith revealed this fascination to be just another part of his life, a consistent interest. When he learned of physics and its implications in the world, the subject was a natural fit for him: Physics explained all of the things he had been questioning.

Since then Stith has gone on to become an accomplished physicist, eventually even rising to the respected position of the Vice President of the Physics Resource Center for the American Institute of Physics.

Stith’s accomplishments extend even further. According to the American Institute of Physics website, “[Stith] is a past president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, past president of the National Society of Black Physicists, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a Chartered Fellow of the National Society of Black Physicists and a member of the Ohio Academy of Science. Additionally, he serves on a number of national and international Advisory Boards.” Throughout his career, Stith has made an impression on the physics community through his education-centric research, which is considered to be both unique and necessary by his various colleagues.

In addition to the numerous accolades listed above, Stith is a teacher; as a colonel in the United States Military, he spent 21 years on the faculty of United States Military Academy at West Point. In his semi-retirement, he has continued teaching in a variety of ways, including joining the discussion of how to effectively teach things like physics to the public—which would help eliminate many instances of misinformation about science that have been a persistent problem.

“Being an expert on a topic does not imply that one will also be effective teaching their subject. It’s something else to be this,” said Stith in one of the lectures he gave at Vassar on Friday.

Through his work, Stith attempts to educate people on what this “something else” is, and how to use it to students’ advantage. His current research focuses on how people learn, and Stith uses the results of this research to effectively speak about things commonly seen as difficult to communicate, such as bioethics.

“Part of what our job as instructive mentors is, is to enable our students to see the bigger picture; or, as my brother used to always say, the boar can’t see the forest for the trees,” Stith said with a smile.

This anecdotal remark is met with a laugh from the audience as Stith follows it with, “Who’s heard that before? I know where you come from.”

It is with this witty, personal manner that Stith gets through to his students and to anyone who listens to him. His lectures were riddled with it, and the bits of personality he let peek through the academics of his lectures kept his audience fully engaged.

When beginning a discussion of media communication of science, Stith again calls upon an anecdotes from his past to help get his points across. Stith relays the story of a family trip to Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, taken right at the time it partially melted down in 1979. While locals panicked and began fleeing the surrounding city, Stith remained calm.

“I found myself that evening conducting physics seminars on the way reactors work and why [the locals] should not leave. They made the decision to trust me, and they stayed,” Stith recounted to his audience.

Through this story, Stith makes a point of how the media is not often quick to relay scientific information, and how the media can sometimes be misleading, especially when news is breaking. Due to a lack of information about the workings and dangers of nuclear reactors, the people of Three Mile Island could’ve been in serious trouble had they truly panicked.

“Life is about communication,” Stith remarked in his talk, “[and] knowledge that you could not communicate is knowledge that is not useful.” Stith holds this to be true in every way, and his talks reflected that. He has devoted the second half of his life to understanding the way people learn, Professor Jenny Magnes of the Physics Department explained in the introduction of Stith at the lectures, and through this devotion, he has developed certain methods of relaying information.

“The bottom line is that, as all of us tell all of our students, I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers–and do exactly what I say,” Stith poignantly remarked in his lecture.

As Stith’s comment would suggest, teaching, especially in the sciences, is often about instructors simply asking students to relay certain bits of information. This view toward teaching lays the foundation for Stith’s ideas about science teaching and ways in which ideas are communicated, something which is incredibly relevant for Vassar students.

Many students are required to take Intro to Physics for their major, but have a difficult time grasping concepts. Stith hopes to alleviate this difficulty via different teaching techniques, such as “backward design,” as Stith calls it. This idea centers around the student rather than the professor, upon focusing each aspect of a course around the student and ways in which they can succeed.

Stith’s focus is not, however, limited just to students. Rather, he looks also at the media and the communication of science to the public as a whole.

“If we take a look at what I call the disconnect, the disconnect between scientists’ opinions and public opinions…the question becomes ‘how do we bridge that divide?’” asked Stith about the transmission of scientific information through the media.

His second lecture of the day, entitled “Scientists Reaching Out to the Public: A Necessary Dialogue,” focused on members of the scientific community can better diffuse its findings.

As its title would suggest, this talk looked at the relationship between science and the public, and the transmission of information: not a simple subject.

In order to begin this dialogue, Stith presented the media as it is now.

“It’s amazing how opinions now seem to count as opposed to what the fact is,” Stith remarked in his lecture.

Upon offering methods with which to alleviate this problem, Stith suggested that the gap be closed between public perception and scientific knowledge.

“People’s perceptions persist. Even though they know better in the terms of, they still believe [the preconceived notion],” Stith had remarked in his first lecture.

It is the scientist’s job to eliminate this problem, Stith believes, and he has taken steps, along with his peers, to begin this process.

In order to begin changing people’s perceptions, Stith began the ISNS, the Inside Science News Service. The ISNS is a staff assembled by Stith to write scientific articles which can then be sent out to publications. Said Stith, “What we were trying to do was to project ourselves as the science portion, or the science equivalent, of the associated press.” This project was a major success, and Stith noted that at their peak, ISNS appeared on roughly 100 stations per day around the country. This is an incredible number, and reflects the success of an important project started for the sole purpose of closing the gap between scientists and the general populus.

With this project and others like it, Stith has made quantifiable progress toward a better scientific learning environment for anyone who is willing to learn. Because, in his view, learning is something that starts the day a person is born and never ends.

“Life is a process of continually learning, continually filling the bucket,” Stith concluded.

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