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Northwestern University

Weinberg Professors Cultivating Their Own Backyard

Countless Weinberg faculty members lead secret lives of altruism. Here at the University, they are inspiring classroom teachers, winners of prestigious awards, sometimes busy department chairs, and almost always people with family demands. Yet many of their finest hours involve working almost unseen in the community—Evanston, Chicago, and beyond—where they bring their deep knowledge of a subject and their contagious enthusiasm for it to people who wish to learn. Often the results are remarkable. In writing about just three of them, we are hoping to pay tribute to them all.

Steve Jacobsen: Calling All Budding Scientists

In January, Assistant Professor Steve Jacobsen shook hands with President Obama in the East Room of the White House. He was one of 100 young scientists in the country to receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor the government bestows on researchers who show exceptional promise right out of the gate. But the geophysicist won't be getting a swelled head any time soon. For one thing, his seven-year-old daughter was unimpressed with her White House visit: she only wanted to see Bo, the President's dog, and Bo was tantalizingly out of sight that day. For another, bringing Jacobsen down to earth on a regular basis are the Evanston third and fourth graders he teaches as part of Project EXCITE, a volunteer program designed to entice talented minority students to pursue science.

"The kids always remind me not to take awards and ceremonies too seriously," says Jacobsen. "When they are bouncing off the walls with energy, it rubs off on me. They are a constant reminder that science is really fun."

On an afternoon in February, nine Project EXCITE third-graders raced up the stairs of Locy Hall, home of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department, to a classroom on the third floor. They had a head start on the 6'5" Professor Jacobsen, who was bounding up the stairs two at a time to keep up with them. Jacobsen has been described by his freshman seminar students as a "cool, laid back guy, who makes looking at rocks amazingly fun." Today he wasn't fascinating college students with rocks, but eight and nine-year-olds with space exploration. He told the students to fasten their (imaginary) seatbelts, as a NASA video transported them to the planet Mars. "Minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six…" the kids counted along with the narrator to the liftoff of the Delta Two Rocket of the Mars Exploration Rover.

There's lots of noise, laughter, and energy coming from the students. Some thoughtful questions emerge as well: how will the spacecraft land, what is the parachute for, why are there six legs on the Rover instead of four.

"What does this all mean for you guys?" Jacobsen asks them as the film ends, then answers his own question.

"If you decide to be scientists and engineers, this could be where you do your exploration," He unfolds a large, colorful map of Mars. "There are sample return missions planned for the years 2018 and 2020," he tells them, "missions where we would actually go to the surface of Mars, pick up rocks and bring them back. By that time, you'll be 20 years old and in college. If you're studying earth and planetary sciences, you might be the first students ever to see actual samples returned from Mars." That gets their attention.

"Our best guess is that manned space missions won't be possible until about 2030," he continues. "In that year, you'll be about 30 years old—the perfect age to be an astronaut. The people sitting in this room could be the ones actually going to Mars, which is why I want to encourage you to become future scientists and engineers. This could be you," he says, pointing to an astronaut.

The day isn't over for Jacobsen, as these students leave the room. Two more classes of potential scientists and astronauts will come to see, to ask questions, and to imagine. One girl in the next group interrupts Jacobsen for good reason—she has just lost a tooth. Quickly grabbing some tissue for the girl, he describes the experience as "a first" for his lectures at Northwestern.

Though he makes an intriguing presentation, Mars isn't Jacobsen's primary research interest. When he isn't teaching, he's conducting NSF-funded research on the water found in rocks. He says he is searching for lost oceans.

"I am interested in where water goes in the Earth's interior and on other planets in part because water is increasingly important in exploration of the solar system. NASA's search for life begins with water and I believe that's right." In his Northwestern laboratory, Jacobsen squeezes samples between anvils made of diamond. The samples act as windows onto the behavior of rocks and minerals at ultra-high pressures and temperatures found deep inside the Earth. By testing the amount of water minerals can dissolve into their structures at extreme conditions and by studying the effects of the water on their physical properties, Jacobsen's research suggests that more water may be found in a layer 250 to 400 miles below the surface than in all of the oceans combined. This could be important to our understanding of how the Earth became habitable in the first place.

Jacobsen lives in Evanston and says he likes "working locally," giving back to the community he calls home. His daughter, a second grader at Washington Elementary School, is thriving in an innovative program in which all classes are conducted in Spanish. Yet he and his colleagues in the Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) department are well aware that, despite excellent public education in the community, a marked achievement gap exists between minority and non-minority students, especially in math and science. It usually becomes evident at the high school level and carries over into college, graduate school, and the professions.

So five years ago, department chair Brad Sageman and other EPS faculty members teamed up with the ongoing Project EXCITE, part of the Northwestern-sponsored Center for Talent Development, housed in the School of Education and Social Policy. Started through a collaboration between the Center and Evanston School Districts 65 and 202, the program serves grades three through eight, and draws from five Evanston public schools.

Sageman tells us, "We have always been eager to contribute because we are very aware of the challenges associated with the recruitment of underrepresented groups to the sciences. Earth Science is particularly hard hit because high schools offer little exposure to the subject, especially in urban areas, and geoscience is not widely perceived as a field with excellent career opportunities. Project EXCITE offers a rare chance to correct this perception early."

"We have in Evanston a very diverse community," says George Peternel, associate director of the Center. "And yet, the Advanced Placement classes in science and math at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) have had almost all white students. Our goal with Project EXCITE is to bridge the gap between minorities and non-minority students at the high school level."

It seems to be working. The first four classes of EXCITE students—who began as third graders—are now at ETHS, freshmen through seniors. Fifty-nine percent are in honors placement in science; 70 percent are in honors math.

Jacobsen and Peternel agree that the real benefit to students is being exposed to professional scientists working at the forefront of their fields.

"I had no scientists in my family," says Jacobsen, who grew up in Denver, Colorado. "It wasn't until I went to college and met faculty members that I realized that a career in science was possible. So having these students meet scientists in various disciplines is important, to see that we're ordinary people."

"I think what Brad and Steve and their group are doing is planting seeds with minority kids," says Peternel. "Everyone knows what a policeman does but how many kids say, 'I'd like to be involved in studying volcanoes and earthquakes' or 'I'd like to become a person who investigates weather conditions and changing climate.' Now they get the idea that 'I could become one of them.'"

Penny Hirsch: Writing One's Way Home

In a sun-filled room in a red brick house in the shadow of Chicago's United Center, nine women sit curled over loose leaf paper, writing. Their hands, arms, heads, and minds seem fully connected, fully engaged in the task. A small woman with wavy frosted hair circles the tables where they sit, encouraging them with questions in a soft voice. They confer with her briefly, then continue to write without looking up, until their stories are finished.

"I was very promiscuous at age 14," one story began. "My mother put me out, and I had to live in the streets."

Another started with "I was 9 years old and my stepfather used to touch me and my sisters."

And yet another: "I was 9 years old when my mother was murdered. They found her body on the loading dock."

Their stories are starkly told, but then, these women are not writing to impress with flourishes of style. They are writing to exorcise demons in their past. They are writing to become free.

These are the women of Grace House, a transition home run by St. Leonard's Ministry of the Episcopal Church for women who recently have been released from the Illinois prison system. A home as filled with the air of possibilities as with comfortable furniture, Grace House welcomes 18 women at a time. They come voluntarily to receive spiritual, emotional, and practical help before facing the challenges of the outside world. They have all broken the law, most often for prostitution, drug possession and other non-violent crimes; they have all served time. Now they have a second chance, and a Northwestern University writing instructor is there on Tuesday afternoons, to listen carefully to their stories, to help them heal.

Penny Hirsch, professor of instruction in writing and associate director of the Writing Program at Northwestern, is part of a dynamic mother-daughter duo who created the writing class at Grace House four years ago. It was her daughter's idea, a natural outgrowth of Jennifer Hirsch's passionate interest in social justice and the difficulties faced by women in prison. At the time Jennifer, who holds a PhD in anthropology, was directing the Chicago Field Studies program at Northwestern; now she serves as the research and operations director at the Field Museum's Center for Cultural Understanding and Change.

"When Jenny found Pastor Berni Dowdell at Grace House and asked whether a writing workshop would be useful, Pastor Berni said Jenny could bring her 'group,'" says Penny. "Since I teach writing at Northwestern, Jenny asked whether I would be her group. I said I would go once. But when we went to the first workshop, in summer 2006, we fell in love with the place. I have a lot of admiration for these women who are trying to put their lives back together in a society that doesn't make it easy."

If the residents don't have a schedule conflict during the class—say, another class or job interview—they are obligated to attend.

"One or two of them have been hostile at first, but in the writing workshop, that goes away," says Penny. "Most of them are eager to change their lives but they have so few skills. They seem so young in terms of maturity and relationships and self-esteem. The writing workshop helps them develop confidence and build self-esteem because they get to exchange stories, validate each other's growth, and eventually see their writing in print. We don't try to teach anything about grammar during the workshop, but we do correct for errors when we type the pieces after class. Mostly, we want the women to use writing as a way of thinking and of connecting with others and of being reflective."

Class today begins with a yoga pose, taught by Sherona Sernik, a Weinberg freshman and former student of Penny, who comes weekly to be part of this hopeful process. Participants sit on the floor and stretch their legs in front of them, then square their shoulders, and hold the pose. Yoga can be a way to find inner peace, says Sherona, as the women take their seats. To prime the pump of imaginative expression, an example of good writing is read by Jenny Hirsch; this time it's a description of Basha, a Jewish refugee and Holocaust survivor described in Barbara Myerhoff's ethnography, Number Our Days. Basha is characterized as a sturdy boat who weathers the rough waters of her life. The women in class can easily relate.

And then the real writing begins, with women answering questions on a worksheet Penny has devised for this class and lengthening their answers into short essays. As the Hirsches circle the tables to offer help, it's clear they serve different purposes. Penny is the kindly, encouraging mother that some of the women never had. Jenny is the sharper-edged feminist who tells them to stand up, be proud, and take up space as they read their writing in class.

The women are not forced to read aloud, but most choose to do so. One woman cries as she shares her story, a tale of neglecting and abandoning her children during her drug addiction, and then finding them again recently as adults and hoping to start over. People in the room—teachers, helpers, and residents alike—cry with her, as much in hope of what is to come as in sorrow for what has been.

Her story and the stories of the rest of the class will continue to be treated with respect once they leave Grace House. The work will be typed on paper often adorned with colorful borders and designs. With the best pieces by all class members, they will eventually be bound into a permanent booklet with photographs, a tangible record of what they have accomplished. It is a marvel for those who came to class saying they couldn't write or hated writing. For others, it is a testament to the power of their stories, courageously told and even more courageously lived.

Since the writing teachers began at Grace House, a few of the women from the first workshops have passed away, from illness or violent crime. But emergence into productive lives is the norm for this group, and is a big reason the Hirsches keep coming back. The recidivism rate for Grace House residents is about 18 percent while it is about 68 percent for women leaving the prison system in the State of Illinois as a whole.

Penny Hirsch says Grace House "works" because of Pastor Berni, a charismatic woman with a wide smile and ready laugh, who has high expectations of her residents. It also works because of the structure. The women's days are filled with high school (or even college) classes; 12-step programs; classes on relationships, parenting, and life skills; and a healthy dose of prayer and meditation.

Patricia Williams, a former resident of Grace House, credits much of her success to the Penny-Jenny team. She is currently a receptionist at the Michael Barlow Center, which provides education and job training for formerly incarcerated men and women.

"The writing class changed my life," said Williams, who had been incarcerated 11 times before turning her life around. "When Penny told me to write about my life story, I didn't know how to start. She showed me writings from different authors, how they expressed themselves on paper. I had never written anything and the pen just took on a life of its own: how I felt so alone and in this place by myself. I just wrote and wrote and when I finished, I was in awe of what I had written down….I am sitting here today, four years later, and making a career decision to go back to school, to be a drug counselor. I don't think I would change a thing, due to Penny and Jenny opening my eyes to a bigger world out there, a better world."

Bryna Kra: Making Math Irresistible to Girls

Will the next great woman mathematician come from Evanston's Orrington Elementary School? She may, if the groundwork being laid right now by Weinberg math professor Bryna Kra smoothes the way for girls to fall in love with the field and prosper in it.

The widely-held notion that "girls don't do math" has frustrated Kra for a long time. She sees the results of that thinking in these approximate statistics from the American Mathematical Society: 20 percent of math PhDs go to women but only 10 percent of tenure track hires at major research universities are women and only 6 percent of full professors are women. Girls don't see women mathematicians in the classroom; they think that path is closed to them and take another. Then, with few role models, the next generation bows out as well.

"We [at the major research universities] want to be at the forefront of research but I think we're handicapping ourselves by pulling 50 percent of the population out of the research pool before they even get to college," says Kra. Despite her hefty list of responsibilities—chairing Weinberg's mathematics department, teaching classes of graduate students, and conducting award-winning research on ergodic theory—Kra is doing something tangible about the problem. And she's doing it at the second grade level, where students are too young to adhere to stereotypes. At the beginning of the school year, she contacted Orrington's principal and asked to do projects to turn students, especially girls, on to math. Making the subject fun, it seems, is the best sales tool there is to attracting future female stars.

On most Friday afternoons, Kra can be found at Orrington, with a kind of magic show of projects she has stayed up late at night to invent. She tests them on her own boys, ages five and eight. One second grade teacher, Erica Medard, says her students are having so much fun with Kra and her graduate students, they sometimes don't realize they've just "done math" and wonder when math class will begin.

"We get into these incredible discussions," says Kra. "They ask me about infinity and I explain it to them.

"We are lucky that we're working with two truly wonderful teachers, but their math backgrounds are different from ours. While the teachers can explain to the kids what infinity is, when the kids start asking, 'Is there anything bigger than infinity?' it's a hard question to answer. Or, 'What is infinity plus infinity?' For us, this is our bread and butter. This is a concept that is intuitive to us and we can discuss it with them. And they really ask good questions."

While their full time teachers must stick to a nuts and bolts curriculum of multiplication and decimals and the like, Kra and company are free to experiment, to the students' delight.

"When we come in, the class sometimes erupts in cheers," says Kra. "For math professors to get that reaction is pretty remarkable."

On a February day, Medard's class is exuberantly decorated with red and purple hearts in anticipation of Valentine's Day. Professor Kra enters with graduate students Amanda Potts and Maria Stadnik, who participate with funding from the National Science Foundation, which also funds some of Kra's research. Stadnik calls this day "the best part of the week for us."

The second graders, three or four each at five round tables, keep up a constant buzz of chatter throughout the hour, almost all of it about the project.

"This card is a piece of cake," Kra tells them, holding up an index card. "We are going to cut it into two equal pieces, using only a straight line."

With a pencil and ruler, one girl bisects the cake with a diagonal line.

"What two shapes do you get?" Kra asks her.

"Triangles," she replies.

"If you rotate them and put them one on top of the other, would they be the same shape?" The girl tries it, eyes shining, then nods her head.

And so the class begins, with students encouraged to explore ways to come up with equal pieces—thirds, fourths, fifths. The three "teachers"—along with Ms. Medard—visit each table in turn, challenging students to progress to the next step, to do something different than their tablemates are doing. Small hands are busy, drawing lines which are vertical or horizontal or diagonal, cutting with scissors, folding. The children may not know it but they are learning about fractions and geometry, about equal size and what that means.

"They can't wait for Fridays," says Ms. Medard. "They get to explore at their own pace. They each come away with a different level of understanding. The fact that they are using their hands means they are very engaged in it."

At this age, Kra doesn't see the male-female differences which surface by junior high. But at a recent math night at Orrington, a few parents seem surprised when Kra told them of their daughters' math ability. Girls' parents have begun to ask her for workbooks as extra projects for their daughters, who, they say, come home very excited about math.

Of course, the joy of learning is not restricted to girls in the class. The budding mathematician inside some boys is unlocked as well. Kra tells of a boy who recently discovered before her eyes how to arrive at the Fibonacci sequence of numbers [0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc., in which the first two numbers are 0 and 1, and each remaining number is the sum of the previous two].

"It was just phenomenal," says Kra. "He sat there with sweat pouring down his face, in a corner of the room, because he didn't want any help. 'Is the next number 8?' he asked. Then, 'Is the next number 13?'

"This is just a wonderful feeling because you've convinced students to turn their brains on in a way they hadn't before," says the math professor.

"When we go to the class, it gives us a real high. At the university level, you see learning but it's over a long period. This is learning you can see instantly." And learning, she hopes, which will propel at least some of the girls into that mathematics pipeline.

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