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Dayton Syme, Florida State University
On April 14th, 2013, the President of the United States put forth an aggressive budgetary plan for the 2014 Fiscal Year, which included changes to the tune of $178 million in funding being reshuffled between programs that support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. The proposed changes also drafted a complete reorganization of STEM educational programs throughout the federal government, centering them into: the Department of Education (ED), the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institute. The changes drew some support and harsh criticism from all parties in Congress. This proposal was constantly referred to as the “STEM Reorganization” and made STEM the hot topic of the year. By this point, the Reorganization made people either proudly profess their support for science education initiatives, or they misheard you and would carefully maneuver the conversation thinking the topic was stem cell research.
Around May, Dr. Camsie McAdams — then Senior Advisor on STEM Education, now Acting Director for the Office of STEM in ED — with APS policy specialists Dr. Tyler Glembo and Dr. Francis Slakey agreed to have an APS fellow come in to the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (OPEPD) to help her with all things STEM. For the summer of 2013, that fellow was me. By the time I had arrived in DC, in the first blistering week of June, OPEPD was swamped with policy changes crossing through the office. These changes caused confusion in the ED Human Resources office and, as I later learned, a filter kept flagging my résumé to be scrubbed out. The first time I entered into the Department of Education would turn out to be two weeks after my arrival.
I was unusual in the ED in that I was a physicist (I had earned my BS in physics shortly before beginning my fellowship) and had not majored in education, law, or political science. The culture of the interns I met in ED, being of those three main groups, was close to entirely homogenous. It reminded me of the popular quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson about our government in which he asks, “Where's the rest of life?” Once officially accepted into ED, I learned – through interactions with more interns who also did not fit with the cookie cutter majors — a classic lesson turned in to a realization. Having a boss that wanted you there got you there, end of story. It was a humbling and fulfilling moment to know that I really was being fought for to work in ED, both from APS and within the department.
When I did finally meet Camsie, I find it humorous how serious I was in our conversation — which mainly consisted of me furiously scribbling everything that she said and needed me to complete. The projects on the list for someone who had just showed up to their first day were slightly daunting. But the endgame to me was of the greatest importance, to finally establish a connection between ED and the science communities by laying the groundwork for a new APS/AIP/AAAS fellow. As it turns out, the American Association for the Advancement of Science had been trying to place fellows and change science education policy directly in ED for years. From great determination in the APS and through a chance conversation the physics societies were moved into an incredibly rare and exciting position.
I spent the majority of my fellowship researching STEM education in every wavelength of its spectrum. The projects I worked the most on were STEM talking points; covering women, minorities, and jobs. Coming from outside of the political realm, most of what I knew about talking points were that pundits and people alike complained about them. Now I was expected to write them and I was perplexed about what it took to make a good talking point. I met with an AAPT fellow working in AIP at the time and she gave me the basics: have a factoid and use an emotional example to help connect the audience with said factoid. Initially, the idea of linking an emotion with a fact instead of just presenting the fact seemed counter to my image of how science should be represented, but I followed the lesson to the best of my ability. The next day I sent Camsie what I had written, and nail biting ensued. In an email later she effectively suggested that I stick with the facts; with a deep breath and smiling at my computer, I was more than happy to oblige.
Not all talking points were written easily. I remember an embarrassing time when a weak point of mine — not having a very fast typing rate — unveiled itself. Early in my fellowship, Camsie was going to be leading a meeting covering the latest edition of the CoSTEM 5-year plan. Essentially, it was a 143 page framework which the administration hoped the Reorganization would follow. Her meeting was going to start in a few hours, and she wanted talking points on the report. The excitement and fear rushing through my head did little to help me as it felt I was pouncing on every key for every talking point. It was a vicious cycle indeed, as I tried to write as many bulleted facts from the report as possible and send them to Camsie, only to receive the paper highlight with my silly mistakes marked and returned. Looking back now, I didn’t realize that what she wanted was closer to a summary and not just a list of bulleted facts. In the end she did receive the talking points in the form she wanted — about 30 seconds before the meeting began; however, she did communicate a slight disappointment in the pace. Ashamed, I used that to remind myself not to be so unprepared.
While that was among my lower points, my highest was at a Women in Science caucus meeting I attended. The department was going to have a table, but in order to attract more people we felt we should have some kind of game to reel people in. It was the kind of moment I was meant for, since I had been a science demonstrator for the three previous years. My solution came from an activity I learned while helping the Society of Physics Students at a museum a few years prior. The activity was to have people wear diffraction glasses and look at the spectra for red, green, blue, and white LED lights. I — being the physicist that I am — had also brought my trusty green laser which would finally get used. Following a quick conversation with the SPS National, we quickly received a small duffle bag full of SPS-marked diffraction glasses with multiple colors of LED lights. The caucus went great, with our table really just competing against the NASA table. And it has had a lasting impression; I would suggest you take a look at the banner photo on Camsie’s Twitter page. Whatever glasses we didn’t give out at the caucus went to me, where I then proceeded to strategically hand them to every intern, boss, and interested stranger I could find. The best one so far is the photo I have of me and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sporting them.
The experience I had was amazing and I am very proud to know that the groundwork I laid has paid off and we currently have an APS fellow operating within the Department of Education. I wish them the very best as they try to improve our American science education on the policy level. Some may feel that it’s good to have people who know law and politics be in the thick of it; however, I counter that in our little constitutional republic we need to make sure not only that our representation is adequate, but also that our involvement is beyond adequate. My hope is that these continuing APS fellowships and internships in ED will foster a better dialogue directly leading into better policies that affect science education. At the same time, I must urge you to be active in promoting your students and colleagues in advocating for STEM education and other science initiatives. The implications for failing to act are too great to not be vocal. If you wish to contact me, I have Facebook, email (email@example.com), or Twitter (@WeirdScientist). Make great entropy.
Dayton Syme is currently a PhD student in physical chemistry at Florida State University. He earned his BS in physics at Idaho State University in 2013, then spent the summer of 2013 serving as the APS/AIP Fellow (partially funded by FEd) at the Department of Education. He has been a member of the APS, the AAPT, the Kappa Sigma Fraternity Alumni, and the Society of Physics Students. His research is currently on modeling enzymatic activity for a multi-substrate system and physical structures of organic chemical gardens.