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Featured Teacher: AAAS Fellow Jeff Bennett

 

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Jeff Bennett

Jeffrey Bennett was elected as a AAAS Fellow in 2018 through the Section on Education. Bennett taught classes in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and education for many years at the University of Colorado. He has also taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, including running a private summer school focused on space for students in grades 4-9. Currently, he works from home as a writer.

What was it like to learn that you had been elected as a Fellow?

It’s a great honor to be selected as one of the AAAS Fellows. I hope that all Fellows, including myself, will use the credibility and visibility of the Fellows program to help engage the public in understanding the science of critical issues such as climate change and the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. 

Why did you become a teacher?

My motivation to teach is perhaps best summarized by this famous quote from H.G. Wells: “Human history is more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” I wanted to teach since before I was in high school, because it seemed one of the best ways to make a difference in the world. (I have a web statement that answers this question in more detail.)

Share a story from your past that led to your choosing your field of work.

My first formal teaching position was during a gap year when I was 18, hired as an aide in a grade 2-3 class. On my very first day, a 2nd grader brought in an article about black holes for sharing. I was already planning to major in physics, and this event led me to realize the power that astronomy — aka astrophysics — could have for education. That played a big role in my ultimate decision to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics as part of my teaching pathway.

What do you do to remain current and bring the latest science into the classroom?

I’m very fortunate that the piles of notes I generated while teaching my college classes ultimately led me to textbook contracts that now keep me employed essentially full-time as textbook writer. This means it is part of my job to keep current of the full range of discovery in the disciplines in which I write (astronomy, astrobiology, mathematics, and statistics), and to always be thinking about how to help others bring the latest results into the classroom.

What fuels your passion for science and teaching?

I’ve already mentioned the general answer embodied in the H.G. Wells quote, but more specifically I’ve been motivated for most of my career on trying to push for action on global warming. While we have many other challenges as well, I believe this is the most important challenge of our time. It is something I cover in all my textbooks, and I’m currently going around the country (at my own expense) to speak on the topic; I have also written a primer on the topic, posted freely online. 

Share a comment or opinion you have on a topical science-related issue.

Follow up on the prior question, I believe that we must do a much better job of educating the public about the science of global warming. We too often focus on details, and miss the big picture, which I like to summarize as “global warming 1-2-3”: (1) It is a fact (e.g., established by evidence “beyond reasonable doubt”) that greenhouse gases make planets warmer than they would be otherwise. (2) It is a fact that human activity is adding greenhouse gases to Earth’s atmosphere. (3) Together, the first two facts lead inevitably to the conclusion that our actions will cause global warming, with the only uncertainties being in how fast it will occur and the level of danger it poses. I believe that if we focused on this simple science, rather than getting bogged down in debates about details of models or measurements, we’d find much greater public understanding of the importance of the issue.

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Chris Spitzer

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