FEATURE — Summer 2010


Robert Panoff, MA ’79, PhD ’85 ( Photo: Jon Gardiner)

Generating Enthusiasm for Scientific Exploration

Using computer simulations, alumnus Robert Panoff is leading the charge to enhance and improve math and science education, at both the learning and teaching levels.

By Terri McClain

Physicist Robert Panoff wants to build better scientists. In the mid-1990s, he founded the Shodor Education Foundation, a nonprofit research and education organization, to improve the way math and science are taught. To that end, the foundation employs computer methods that prove to generate greater enthusiasm for scientific exploration among young people.

Panoff explains that Shodor’s operation allows all to do fun science, not just those students left after a typical undergraduate weeding-out process. “We use fun science to get students to want to do the hard work that is before them,” Panoff says. “We can give kids the power to change the world in a computer model, instead of making them wait until graduate school to do experiments. So in the jargon of the educationalists, we’re using computer simulations and visualizations as a pump instead of a filter.”

“We can give kids the power to change the world in a computer model, instead of making them wait until graduate school to do experiments. So in the jargon of the educationalists, we’re using computer simulations and visualizations as a pump instead of a filter,” Panoff says.

Computation is, of course, a fundamental aspect of science. Physics, in particular, requires lengthy calculations that could take years to complete without the use of computers. As a computational physicist, Panoff is adept at using simulation models to study scientific problems.

“Rapid computation doesn’t have any purpose if you don’t have any reason to believe the calculations that are done,” he says. “So a lot of what we do is under the guise of verification and validation.” Panoff stresses that Shodor not only teaches those two things at the research level, but also at the college, high school and middle-school level. “Verification comes if you solve the problem correctly,” he says. “Validation is a test of whether you solved the correct problem.”

Alumnus Robert Panoff (standing) mentors students at his research and education nonprofit, Shodor Education Foundation. Shodor’s mission is to improve math and science education at every level.

As it turns out, these concepts are not difficult to teach children. With computer simulations, kids easily observe change and effect. “For lack of a better word,” Panoff says, “we give them control knobs and say, ‘Okay, now make this change and see if you can observe any effect. What does that tell you about what we’re changing and how you study this? How sure are you that it’s right?’ We give them the sense of how scientists study things through very careful observations.”

Overall, the process helps them capture the phenomena and understand what’s interesting to study, rather than come up with the big theory. “So we’re getting more students at every level excited about being scientists,” he says, “because the kinds of things that they can study are just so cool and interesting — when we can make them accessible and visual.”

A teacher’s emergence
Panoff’s college notebooks demonstrate an early interest in teaching. On the right side, he wrote class notes — on the left, analytical critiques of the instructor’s teaching methods.

While a graduate student at Washington University, Panoff, MA ’79, PhD ’85, encountered researchers who were pioneering the use of computers in comparative computation. He worked with extraordinary faculty mentors, such as his adviser John Clark, PhD, the Wayman Crow Professor of Physics, and Carl Bender, PhD, the Wilfred R. and Ann Lee Konneker Distinguished Professor of Physics, both in Arts & Sciences.

“These men were really looking at using the mathematical descriptions of physics and the beginnings of computer simulations to obtain a deeper insight into the world.” At the same time, Panoff says, Washington University instilled in him a passion for learning and teaching. “I think my Washington U. education clearly shaped a lot of what I do, both in terms of content and method,” he says. “There were mentoring and discussions on how to be a teacher, with faculty who cared about the quality of teaching.”

Moreover, his adviser, John Clark, treated graduate students as colleagues and co-authors. Panoff says that as the work was done, it was published. And when it was published, contributing students were co-authors, not just an acknowledgment.

“By the time I wrote my thesis, my research already had been published,” Panoff says, “and being a published author before you’ve even finished your degree really changes your career track.”

Career expansion
In the early 1990s, Panoff transitioned from faculty positions in physics to supercomputing projects. On the first project, at the state level in North Carolina, he created a training program designed to teach college faculty how to use supercomputing resources in their research and teaching. He then transitioned to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he continues to serve as a consultant for the education program.

In 1994, after being diagnosed with kidney cancer and given only six months to live, Panoff returned to North Carolina to found Shodor.

He survived the cancer, and he stayed determined to spend his time doing what was most important to him — putting his philosophies into action by mentoring quality science teachers and budding young scientists.

“So what we do now at Shodor,” he says, “is focus on developing the best teacher we can develop, the best kid we can develop, and the best teaching materials that a teacher can use with those kids.”

Shodor’s impact continues to rise. Its “Computational Science Education Reference Desk” website, shodor.org/refdesk/, received an “Official Honoree” designation in the Education category from the 2007 Webby Awards. Among other institutions receiving the designation were Harvard Business School and the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. Shodor’s “Interactivate” website, shodor.org/interactivate/, received an “Official Honoree” designation in the Science category that same year, sharing the honor with such organizations as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Scientific American.

The websites include numerous online tools and resources, aligned to national standards, which parents and teachers can use to supplement math and science education. Some of the activities are games, but all provide opportunities for exploration. Shodor, which is partly funded by National Science Foundation grants, even offers video lessons in American Sign Language.

With a small staff of experts in education, science, mathematics and computer programming; 25 to 30 college interns; and 40 to 50 high school students in various levels of “apprenticeship,” Shodor provides classes to hundreds of kids each year. The interns and apprentices provide invaluable assistance with teaching; in fact, they build many of the organization’s interactive educational tools.

As a result, Shodor greatly impacts community-based learning by training young people who are looking to make a difference. “Service learning is becoming an accepted methodology for preparing young people at the university level to be of use to society,” Panoff says.

Shodor takes college and some high school students and gives them the tools, with curriculum and pedagogy and mentoring, so that they can run after-school programs for kids in the public schools. “We’re preparing this group of kids who themselves go out and teach other kids. It’s through that multiplying effect that what we’re doing is really starting to have an impact,” Panoff says.

“The phrase I like to use is adept, adapt, adopt,” he continues. “We help people who want to do this to become adept, to become very good at doing it. They can adapt our materials to their own interest and skill level, and then they can choose to adopt those things for their own program. Part of our goal is to seed the activities of teachers and future scientists with this type of approach.” The ultimate goal? “To transform learning through computational thinking. And that means transforming teachers into more effective, dynamic explorers,” he says.

Terri McClain is a freelance writer based in St. Charles, Mo.

For more information on Shodor Education Foundation, visit shodor.org.