Steve Kortenkamp is a professor in the University of Arizona Department of Planetary Science. Although some of his research focuses on orbital dynamics of asteroids and comets, he’s also researching science education for people with disabilities. As a part of that research, Kortenkamp has helped create hundreds of 3D printed models of structures related to planetary science. A few of these models were showcased at The Art of Planetary Science as Touching the Solar System.
What started this science education project?
I have a colleague in the College of Education who is blind, and he runs their program for teachers of the visually impaired. He had an idea to work together on a STEM education project using project-based learning. So, like a long term, several month project that students would work on, rather than nitty gritty details like homework. This professor was looking for someone on the science side of things to collaborate with. He ended up in the astronomy realm, thinking about 3D printing. When I met him, we started talking about Mars and how you could use 3D printers to print features on Mars. We actually submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation. The first one was rejected, but we got good feedback, so we submitted again a year later, and it was accepted. Since that time, we’ve been building the resources and curriculum.
Are any of the models based on your research?
My research now is science education. I’m one of the researchers on the proposal, so I’m not only designing the curriculum and the resources, I’m one of the researchers trying to figure out the effectiveness of using this with people with disabilities. Are they more encouraged to think about or pursue a STEM major when they go to school? We won’t have numbers on that for a while, but we’re getting feedback on their experience with their mentors. In terms of my science research, I do orbital dynamics of asteroids and comets. Those are the things that make the impact craters that we model, but I don’t actually do the modelling of craters.
In your opinion, why are having different ways of communicating science, like these models, so important?
We’ve had a booth at the book festival that’s coming up. Last year, we had maybe 700-800 people come by and explore by touch the models that we have. Quite a few of them were teachers who had some kind of experience with a student who has a visual impairment. They would say, oh, there wasn’t much I could offer them because everything is so visual. It got us thinking about ways that we could branch out to local schools to give them resources. It also works well for students who are not visually impaired. I use them in my big class here, and I think students have a lot of fun with that. It’s something different from an image on a screen. There are different ways to learn other than through a digital experience.
So, you think that using the models is an easier way to teach science, as opposed to say, peer-reviewed research papers?
Oh, definitely that. You have to really boil down the peer-reviewed research to a few fundamental concepts. Even then, using these models, I think is better. Let me give you an example. If we look at these four models, they’re all the same size, but the impact craters they’re representing are all vastly different sizes. One thing that this exercise helps us get across is the idea of scale. In order to represent things so humans can study them, we have to change the scale. We’re working with students on the physical cratering process, so there’s a lot of peer-reviewed work that has gone into understanding why these structures look so different. Here’s a very simple, straightforward way of allowing them to explore that.
Do you think that it’s important for scientists to communicate about their work?
Yeah, especially now a days, when there’s a lot of supposed conflict in the news, usually about evolution or climate, those hot topics. I think it is good for us to get out of our academic shells and work with the people who are willing to listen to that. The university is pretty good at that. They have these evening talks and lectures and even movie screenings by local UA researchers. They’re out talking to them.
Do you think that scientists might sometimes have trouble communicating complex science?
I wouldn’t say just scientists. I think everybody has that problem. You get to be some kind of an expert in something, and without really critically thinking about it you would have a hard time communicating to someone who hasn’t been immersed in whatever that thing is. Bringing it down to a level where a student walking on the street who’s not in my class could understand the concepts is kind of the idea. When we do the book festival, that’s what we’re trying to do. So, I don’t think it’s just scientists. I think it’s everybody, when they get out of their bubble of influence and they try to talk to somebody. I think it’s a challenge.
Because of that challenge, do you think people might have some fear about science?
I think that even I feel that, sometimes when I go to a lecture that’s a different scientist, and I’m not sure exactly what they’re talking about. There’s a little bit of that impostor syndrome kind of thing. So, I’m just going to keep my head down and get through this. I don’t think it’s necessarily the science aspect, but it does occur within science and within groups in science. You know, like law. People are afraid of the law. Not like, they’re afraid of cops, but they’re afraid of lawyer speak. Lawyers have a very confident way of expressing themselves, too, which many scientists also do. If you’re not in that area, you’re maybe a little reluctant to speak up and say, “I don’t quite understand that” or “I disagree with what you’re saying.”
This interview was conducted in person | Images of “Touching the Solar System” courtesy of Steve Kortenkamp and The Art of Planetary Science