Interview with Ralph Stephen

Ralph Stephen is a Senior Scientist in the Geology and Geophysics department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In 2004, Ralph attended a Telling Your Story workshop in preparation for going into the classroom. Then, as a participant in the COSEE-NE project OSEI, Ralph collaborated with teachers Mary Lavin, Derek Strohschneider and Richard Maichle at Plymouth [MA] South Middle School on a lab exercise designed to demonstrate and analyze the properties of waves.

That exercise spawned the website Plymouth wave lab, which is available to teachers and students everywhere. To download a poster on the "Waves and Tsunamis project" click here (pdf).

What prompted you to get involved in education and outreach in the first place?

The new NSF requirement [known as Criterion 2] that funding proposals demonstrate a broader impact on the community at large [through education and outreach (E & O)].

What got you interested in going into schools?

I saw a notice for COSEE-New England’s Ocean Science Education Institute (OSEI) and it caught my attention. The idea of getting involved with teachers resonated with me, but I wanted to be prepped and psyched, not just dropped into a classroom. OSEI was very helpful, and it provided a nice format, especially for someone who might not know a whole lot about what goes on in grade schools.

How did COSEE help you get started?

COSEE’s "Telling Your Story: How to Survive a Classroom Visit" workshop was tremendously helpful. It really laid out the classroom visit: what to talk about and how to introduce myself and my work. Having a structure to follow makes it easier to get started.

Teachers came to the [OSEI] workshop, too, so we got a chance to hear what they needed. We had a chance to brainstorm together about ideas in marine seismology and how to put them to work in the middle school curriculum. It’s amazing how much you can get done in 45 minutes [a typical class period].

Did you have any previous experience with schools or students?

My wife has taught high school math and physics for many years, so I had a good idea of what a classroom is like. Also, she worked with the Massachusetts State Science Fair for 15 years and is a past-president of MSSF, so naturally I’ve been immersed in science fairs since the 1980s, as a judge and a student advisor, and with my own children’s projects.

How did the wave project develop?

First the teachers and I came up with activities for the students to do, using rubber bands and weights to create waves on different kinds of strings. By changing the weights and their placement on the rubber bands, the students could change the waves’ characteristics and behavior.

Those activities worked well for the kids to see the qualitative changes in the waves; the problem is that it’s hard to measure the moving waves, to work out the changes quantitatively. The website provides a way for the students to ‘freeze’ the waves to measure their wavelength, amplitude, and so on.

How did the collaboration with classroom teachers work out?

Really well. Some teachers might think a visit like mine means a day off for them, but that’s not true at all. It’s exactly the opposite; making the lesson worthwhile actually increases their workload, but the ones I worked with really got into it.

One of them in particular was very, very good. We spent a lot of time iterating together, coming up with ideas. She told me exactly what she needed, then she set up the unit for the classroom. We had to make sure it tied in to the frameworks [the state curriculum requirements]

This project engendered mutual respect between the teachers and researchers; you gain an understanding of the different challenges each of you faces. Teaching is a unique skill, independent of the subject being taught. I have tremendous respect for teachers.

You made one classroom visit in October 2004 and one in April 2005; in between we had the December 2004 tsunami-- a very big wave. Were you able to tie that in to the lesson?

The teachers and I brainstormed about how to use the tsunami to grab the kids’ interest—they really ate it up. I’m a marine seismologist, but my research wasn’t directly in the mix at all. The lesson was really on more fundamental things about waves—amplitude, period, and so on. But if the tsunami was the hook that worked, great.  We were using tsunamis in the October 2004 sessions, well before the Sumatran earthquake.  Of course the Indian Ocean tsunami generated tremendous interest from the public and among the students.  It is very important to teach everyone about the "draw-down" that occurs before the inundation in many tsunamis.  This simple observation can save lives.

Who developed the website? How was it received, and what are your plans for it now?

Tom [Bolmer], my technical assistant, did a lot of it. The site has really been busy; it has gotten 40,000 hits, many after the tsunami; it seemed to spark a lot of interest.     

We’re leaving the site up so anyone can use it; it’s a permanent feature. We would like to improve it this year to make it more interactive; students will be able to manipulate the variables and see how that changes the wave they see on the screen.

Do you plan to stay involved with the school and this project?

Yes, I think so. It’s like riding a bike— if you stop, you’ll fall over.

-Interviewed by Jennifer Boyce.

Update on Ralph Stephen’s Plymouth Project

Ralph is continuing to work with the Plymouth schools. In cooperation with the Boston College Educational Seismology Project, a seismograph has been installed in the Plymouth school system and a trained seismologist will be making on site visits on a weekly basis as soon as the seismograph begins transmitting data, which should be later this fall.