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George E. Miller a teacher-trainer, nuclear reactor custodian

AAAS member George E. Miller, senior lecturer emeritus in chemistry at the University of California at Irvine, stands in front of the TRIGA MARK I reactor. (Photo: Rebecca Fairley Raney)

Near the center of the campus of the University of California at Irvine, among the whimsical postmodern structures full of glass and light, there sits a building that looks more like a fortress than a place of contemplation. Rowland Hall, a concrete-and-glass block with narrowed windows reminiscent of arrow slots in medieval castles, looks well-defended. But maybe that's not such bad thing, considering that there's a nuclear reactor in the basement.

George E. Miller, the custodian of the TRIGA MARK I reactor, started working there when the building opened in 1965, just a few months before the campus itself opened.

In the decades since then, he has employed the reactor as a research tool, and developed an experimental course in which students could use the reactor. He's taught large general chemistry courses and ventured into the stormy environment of California curriculum development to improve science education for elementary and high school students.

But it is the reactor, which was purchased as an afterthought through a grant proposal to expand the building, that has defined Miller's career.

After earning his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1963, he started his career as a professor of chemistry, conducting research in the area of hot-atom chemistry, the study of very energetic atoms. But if you search his publications over the last 40 years, you'll find articles from a range of fields, including archaeology, geochemistry and forensics. That's because Miller fielded requests from researchers in other disciplines to use the reactor to make discoveries.

"There have been problems brought to me by other people, rather than my own problems," Miller said.

He has used the reactor to study mercury levels in 300-year-old tuna from the Smithsonian Institution and to study fragments of the bullets that killed President John F. Kennedy.

But when you sit down to talk with him, what Miller mostly wants to discuss is the science curriculum in California schools. A veteran of state-level curriculum battles, he talks about the politics of education fluidly. To him, politics and science mix with ease.

"It takes a scientist," he said, \to deal with a complex situation."

The work dates back to 1980, when he first sat down with some teachers to create a curriculum for the Irvine school district. His curriculum work, over time, involved teaching science in a unified way, instead of separating it into disciplines. He also developed methods to test students by asking them to use their science knowledge to solve small problems.

Within a few years of first sitting down with teachers in Irvine, Miller and several colleagues were holding three-week workshops for hundreds of high school science teachers. At one point, the project received funding from the National Science Foundation. He has served on state curriculum committees, and he continues to advocate for addressing common-core standards through the perspective of science.

"George was tireless in making sure that scientists engaged in the very important work of K-12 education," said Elizabeth Stage, director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley.

Stage, who served with Miller on a state curriculum commission, said that he had the patience to work with people who didn't know much about science, and that he was "so humble and unassuming that he could put them at ease."

It's not so surprising that Miller developed an interest in curriculum. His father, Arthur Miller, was a school principal in England.

"I was there in the summers ordering books and developing his master schedules," Miller said.

And when his father first visited the United States, Miller remembered that his father was stunned that American students were sitting in desks in rows rather than working in groups around desks as they did in Europe.

Miller himself drew on other ideas from the European model as he developed curricula. In Europe, he said, science was taught in a more integrated way, instead of one science at a time. That idea was a foundation of the curriculum Miller developed.

"It met with a lot of resistance," he said.

Through his own teaching, Miller became something of a fixture in Orange County as the leader of Irvine's large general chemistry courses. Even now, years after he handed over the class to others, he seems to run into former students wherever he goes.

Miller's other job—running the reactor—has brought talented students to the campus as well. Graduates and undergraduates can take courses that include using the reactor for experiments. Currently, with a grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration, researchers are using the reactor to try to analyze and distinguish a small sample containing fissionable materials, such as uranium and plutonium. They are conducting these analyses by using so-called "delayed neutrons," which are emitted within a few seconds after they are themselves bombarded with neutrons.

Miller said that preliminary results show that "we can get good data for larger amounts, but we need to improve the system further (increase sensitivity, reduce background noise level, and add gamma ray detection) to get to where we want to be."

After nearly 50 years at the campus, Miller is in the process of handing over responsibilities for the reactor, the experimental course and the teacher-training program to others.

Of all these responsibilities, he seems most worried about the fate of programs to train teachers and of the science curriculum in California. His great hope, he said, is to "train enough people to continue the work without us."

After all, Miller said, it's what the children want.

"The most-read books of kindergartners," he noted, \"are on science."

Representative Image Caption
AAAS member George E. Miller, senior lecturer emeritus in chemistry at the University of California at Irvine, stands in front of the TRIGA MARK I reactor. (Photo: Rebecca Fairley Raney)
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