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Q & A with Michael Marder

Q & A with Michael Marder

marder_illustration_webMichael Marder is a physics professor a co-director of UTeach

How long have you been interested in science education?

In a way, since I was young. I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, and at the time, the University of Illinois was trying a number of radical education experiments, and I was part of them. In eighth and ninth grade, for instance, I was in something called Form 1. The idea was that teachers stand between children and their learning, and so, if you take that to its logical conclusion, you get rid of the teachers. So they did. We had no classes for two years.

Later, at Cornell, I was given a room and board scholarship by the Telluride Foundation. We all majored in many different things, but when you live at Telluride House, everyone gathers together constantly to talk about the role that their education will play in contributing to society. You can’t escape from that place without thinking about it.

What’s your area of expertise in physics?

I specialize in how things break. I smash them, smush them, grind them into powder, and stretch them until they snap. In particular, I study how very brittle things break, and what happens to all the atoms as they move and break apart.

Does your research in physics relate to your work with UTeach?

A lot of the things you think about, when dealing with how solids break, are actually fairly resonant if you think about something like the public education system or other social systems. You’re dealing with large, complicated, interacting networks that aren’t linear. You can’t learn about them by just pulling on them a little bit. They’re not predictable in that way. In both cases, you’re asking: What’s dangerous for the system? What makes it come together and what makes it fall apart?

What’s dangerous to these very big, complex systems is often the weakest point. It’s really hard to identify where that point is. You may look and never see it until you put something under stress. And when it goes, it goes really fast. It slices through, ripping it into pieces. An instant before, everything seemed okay. An instant later, everything has changed, and your system has fallen apart.

Have you had any great eureka moments as a scientist, when everything suddenly becomes clear?

I’ve had a few, but the things that have been most useful haven’t been eureka moments. It’s been the slow, careful development of tools over many, many years that can ultimately find application. I would say UTeach has been very much like this too. Slowly, slowly over the course of many years we’ve worked on developing courses, and refining them, and we’ve watched the students grow in number and grow in the enthusiasm of their response, to the point where we’re now considered a national model in preparing science and math teachers.

Have you found your work with UTeach rewarding?

I have. The improvement of the educational system may be the most important thing for the future health of the country. It’s not that every last science and math professor should be putting their effort toward this, but some need to be, and I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to do that.

Are you worried about the future of science and math education in America?

Yes. We have made progress at The University of Texas at Austin, but right now we’re just beginning the process of having an effect. We’re just a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. Time is short, and we really, as a nation, have to get started.

Illustration by: Felix Sockwell

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Wednesday, 28 October 2020

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