By Janet Callahan
I chose a STEM career. STEM is the acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I am both an engineer and a scientist; my bachelor’s degree (BS) is in Chemical Engineering, my master’s (MS) in Metallurgy and my doctorate (PhD) is in Materials Science. Like nearly everyone who goes to college, I did not know what I would major in when I began, and didn’t pick my undergraduate major until my junior year of college.
Along the way, I had the benefit of amazing teachers and mentors, who nurtured my developing interests. I wish to acknowledge three teachers in particular who had a profound influence on my interest in learning STEM and in simply, learning.
First and foremost is my doctoral advisor, Donald Potter, who spied me one day returning from an on-campus interview as I worked to find a full time job as a chemical engineer. Dr. Potter was always dashing back and forth between his office in IMS and his laboratory in Bunger Henry, which is how he noticed me returning to my residence hall in my interview suit. I had enjoyed learning “Introduction to Materials Science” with Dr. Potter as my instructor the year before. Don took that moment, right then and there, to discuss graduate school options with me. And as we stood on the sidewalk in Storrs that fall afternoon, he invited me to join his graduate group, explaining that he would fund me through a research grant. The rest is history — two years later I received my MS and decided to stay on for my doctorate in Materials Science. Here are a few articles about Dr. Potter, mentor, friend, counselor.
Students Gain Valuable Insight in Characterization Lab
The second teacher who had an impact on me in the critical eight grade (where the literature indicates that boys and girls decide for, or against STEM as a career choice), is Mr. Messersmith, who was my 8th grade science and mathematics teacher. I looked him up in 2014 and because he was so inspirational to me in science class, I wrote him a letter, thanking him and telling him what I remembered about him. Below are links to the letter I wrote, and his reply. Thank you Mr. Messersmith.
Mr M's reply (published with permission).
Janet, I want to thank you for y our letter explaining how I helped you. I have images of the situation regarding the paper, which is surprising. I also have an image what you looked like so many years ago. Just don't know if it is accurate or not. The situation with Donny is equally interesting. I remember thinking I had to win that one to get anywhere with him. Luckily I did. To me it was just about helping people do what they wanted to do even if they didn't know it.
Your perception about helping young women is correct. To me it was always an issue of fairness and still is to this day. In fairness, I think it was my wife who helped me realize some misconceptions I had.
I also feel irritation when I work in a crowded city school with teachers and their children, knowing those students are going to have a harder time than the children I taught in Princeton. But enjoying their excitement when their faces light up makes up for the irritation. Do feel somewhat powerless to do more than my efforts. Those in charge do not seem to like change.
I now teach college courses on how you teach science to children and am presently pushing the class on providing evidence for what they investigate, which is the theme of the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards.). They have great difficulty writing or explaining why they feel a solution is correct. That will change.
Used your letter along with other incidents to talk to this college class about what happens if a teacher's attitude is focused on children of any age. You make decisions based on what you feel and usually they are right. The decision may have to be explained to someone else, but the decisions are right.
Anyway, am very happy I was able to make the right decision at the right time for you and I really do appreciate your thoughts. A person liked to think they made the right career choice, which I did.
With great appreciation for your letter and your life. Am glad I had a part in it.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge Ms. Alcott, an elementary teacher I had for third grade. I remember a couple of things about Ms. Alcott. First, she engaged me in reading aloud to younger children, in other grades. I’m not sure why; I think that she was using “peer to peer” learning techniques to inspire younger kids to read (decades later, these techniques arrived in higher education) while also keeping me engaged. The other thing I remember was how project oriented Ms. Alcott was. For example, she had everyone in class do an embroidery project; we had a project of making a basket of flowers, using yarn and burlap for canvas. I imagine this was probably a gift prepared for Mother’s Day; I do remember them all being displayed and how we used class time to work on them. I saved it. I have always been very project oriented too; I was very engaged in crafts as a child, enjoying making things with my hands and my imagination (crochet, macrame, knitting, sewing, building, blocks, etc.) So Ms. Alcott, and all her projects, really clicked with me.
Each teacher we have, leaves an impression on us. The most inspiring provide us with material to help us emerge into the vessel we become. I was very fortunate in the teachers who inspired and shaped me in my very early years and in those who helped me in my career path. Thank you, Ms. Alcott, Mr. Messersmith, Dr. Potter and the hundreds others who spent time helping me learn.