USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Spotlight on Kavli Science Contest Advisor Joanne Manaster

By Stacy Jannis

The Kavli Science in Fiction Video Contest challenges Gr 6-12 students to examine the science in fiction, including science fiction movies, TV shows, and games. Our contest advisors include science educators , scientists, and Hollywood scifi visual effects experts. Follow #SciInSciFi on twitter  for contest updates.

Joann_Manaster_USA_Science__Engineering_Festival_Kavli_Video_Contest_AdvisorJoanne Manaster is a faculty lecturer teaching online biology courses for the Master of Science Teaching-Biology program at the School of Integrative Biology at the University of Illinois, and has taught lab courses in Bioengineering and Cell and Developmental Biology departments. A tireless science education and communication advocate, Joanne enjoys her activity on social media and also has a blog, JoanneLovesScience, and blogs and hosts online discussions for Scientific American. Her latest venture encourages science reading through Google Hangouts on Air, called Read Science! Joanne is passionate about helping to make science accessible and fun for students of all ages.

When did you first become interested in science?

I have always been fascinated by science and can’t remember a time when the natural world or medical science was not of interest to me. My parents were pretty “hands-off” so my siblings and I were left to explore a lot on our own. I hiked in the “boonies” on Guam nearly every day while my dad was stationed there with the US Air Force, setting the tone for my “naturalist” studies! My dad was a hospital administrator and my mother was quite often in the hospital for various procedures so I spent a lot of time in hospitals, becoming increasingly fascinated with the human body and disease. This led me to consider becoming a physician because that was the only way I knew I could do science. I had never met a real scientist until I went to college, at which point, after working in labs, I decided to adjust my career path to that of a scientist and then ultimately to that of a science educator at the university level.

What are you trying to accomplish with Joanne Loves Science?

I’d like to share how I came up with that name for my website. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, as happens to everyone at some point or another. For better or worse, it gave me an opportunity to consider what was at the core of my being, what would never change, and what could never be taken away from me. For me, it turned out to be “Joanne loves science”, which became the inspiration for my website. If I were to put myself out on the internet, this is what I wanted it to be about.

I have two main places I post videos or writings. One is at Scientific American where I focus on science in TV, video and film, and this includes announcing video contests to encourage people to communicate science concepts to the general public. This blog emerged naturally from what I was doing at Joanne Loves Science and my accompanying youtube channels. I have many videos that are essentially recommendations of popular science books. I’ve recently channeled that hobby into Google Hangouts on Air with popular science book authors called Read Science!

My other videos have addressed scientific concepts using everyday items, including using gummy bears and cats, and the science of make-up such as the chemistry of mascara, the functions of botox and the flammability of nail polish. I find I attract a diverse audience, including young ladies who do make-up tutorials when I do focus on the science of beauty products so I’d like to expand on this project in the near future as soon as I pull together a team for video production. Basically, I believe in the importance of a science literate public, so focus a lot of time on science outreach to young people and curious older adults, too!

What do you think are some of the best ways to engage students when teaching science?

I’ve been asked many times, “Why do students like you and your classes so much?” and I think it comes down to the fact that I start where they are at in skill or thinking level and consider where I’d like them to end up and create a flexible path they can follow to get there, being willing to change as the situation presents itself. This is not just for science, of course, but this is what an effective teacher does to create an environment where students feel safe to explore and expand beyond their boundaries. I think when students look back at all the skills they have learned in my courses, they are quite amazed at how far they have come along. That sense of accomplishment creates a favorable impression of science overall. In addition, I make the interaction with science relevant to their lives and create an environment where they are enjoying themselves so much, they don’t even realize that they are still learning new topics and techniques and even improving their ability to think like a scientist.

What are some of the preconceptions people have about science, and how do we start to change those attitudes?  

When I tell people who are not in a science field that I work in science, they often say, “You must be smart.” or “I was never good at science.” It is amazing how pervasive this type of thinking is. Most likely, they picked up on that sentiment either from their parents or teachers in their early years. At a very fundamental level this is crippling students from exploring our fascinating world by using the techniques science has for us because an automatic wall goes up when people think “science is too hard (for me)”. We need to expose children to more people who work in a scientific field, and are enthused by it, or at the very least, are not intimidated by a scientific mindset.

How do you think we can better encourage and inspire the next generation to become scientists and engineers?

Pulling from my own story, I might have chosen science or engineering sooner if I had actually met some scientists and engineers while young and learned what they do more intimately rather than knowing only of these careers in books. I think it is vital that scientists and engineers reach out to young people so they might consider new options they hadn’t thought of before.

What inspires you in your work?

For my day job as a faculty lecturer at the University of Illinois, I would say it is watching my students become excited when a scientific concept clicks or you can sense that they have become fascinated with a new topic or field or idea!

For sharing on social media, I owe that all to a passion and enthusiasm for science which has remained with me from my childhood. The world is so vast and fascinating, it’s hard not to be excited about it all. I think I have a way of sharing science that both shows my enthusiasm and exhibits an ability to bring science to a level that is accessible to most people.

Another inspiration for my outreach are my children. I learned so much during the time I was actively raising my kids (they are quickly growing, my oldest son is a graduate student in Atmospheric Sciences, my oldest daughter is physics major at UIUC, my second daughter will graduate high school this year and study Spanish and my youngest still has time to decide). I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learned by observing their approaches to the world along the way and I consider these lessons as I choose how to share different types of sciences online.

What advice can you give to science and engineering students?

If you are interested in science and engineering, I hope you will persevere even if others around say it is hard, and definitely banish any thoughts you may have acquired from teachers, your parents or peers such as, “Science is only for “smart” people, and that’s not me.”  Granted, science and engineering require that you apply yourself, that you challenge yourself, but our brains and our very essence of being thrives on that challenge. A sense of accomplishment once you understand a new concept or learned a new skill is one of the most rewarding things you will ever encounter. It is quite motivating.

Begin to notice what interests you. Are you drawn to certain topics more than others? Take note of those and begin to explore those topics more in depth, and from many different angles. Read a book on the topic, watch a video or TV show, find articles, and even contact an expert in the field if you want to know more and would like hands-on experience.  When you are sated with that topic, feel free to move on to another, and even see where your areas of fascination overlap!

Finally, read. Read a lot. Read the books you enjoy, but start to read books that are a little more difficult and require more concentration. Try a new topic. I strongly believe it is one key to becoming successful in science and engineering as well as other fields. Don’t let your intellect wither through lack of challenge of only watching TV or playing video games to the exclusion of all else. Stay curious and actively pursue the things that fascinate you and take your explorations further and deeper!

Remember there are only four weeks left to enter your video into the Kavli “Science in Fiction” Video Contest! The deadline is March 21, 2014! Enter the contest here.
Does science fiction inspire you? So far, our student entrants have explored the science in robots, light sabers, exoskeletons, genetic engineering, time travel, holography and more.
Check out  video contest entries here.