The performance of American students on standardized math and science testing has been a hot-button topic for years. Average test scores often fall behind those of comparable nations, raising concerns about the ability of future generations to compete in the global economy.
To Gary G. DeLeo, professor of physics, getting young students excited about science is a welcome challenge. He has organized outreach programs at area schools for more than 20 years, and for his efforts, he was recently honored as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific society, publishes Science magazine. Fellows are elected by their peers in recognition of their efforts to advance science or its applications.
“Being named a fellow is a really nice feeling,” says DeLeo, who is in his 33rd year at the university. “It gives me the opportunity to contribute in new ways.”
The need for scientific literacy
As the director of Lehigh’s Science Learning Adventures program (LehighSLA), DeLeo visits students of various grade levels at schools throughout the Lehigh Valley. Educating them about science, he says, can positively impact the national discourse.
“Our nation needs more scientifically literate citizens. A lot of decisions are made with a very poor understanding of how the world works,” says DeLeo. “The best way to do it is to start when they’re young, where the need is greatest.”
DeLeo incorporates hands-on activities in his lessons. Children in the LehighSLA program have built motors, used oscilloscopes to see the sound waves their voices create, and used telescopes to observe planets and moons. Every student leaves with a small gift, usually the project they have been working on, and a smile.
“I use a Pavlovian approach; I try to create an association with science and joy. If I can help children appreciate science, then I can help their teachers educate them,” he says.
DeLeo has been fascinated by science since he was a child. As a seven-year-old, he became so enthralled by space and astronomy that he “thought of nothing else.” The entry level courses in physics he took as an undergraduate made him realize that he wanted to pursue the subject further, and he went on to complete his Ph. D. in physics in 1979 at the University of Connecticut. He has worked at Lehigh ever since.
His research initially focused on condensed matter theory, but eventually, a desire to consolidate astronomy at Lehigh resulted in a shift back to what he appreciated the most as a kid: astrophysics. Meanwhile, DeLeo has helped create the B.A. and B.S. degrees in astronomy and astrophysics at Lehigh.
“I can say I largely like the attention Lehigh pays to personal needs,” says DeLeo. “A past Lehigh president, Peter Likins, used to say that Lehigh is ‘large enough to be powerful, small enough to be personal.’ Students get a small school feel at a place with major resources. My positive interactions here are several.”