A Few Good Words with Science Educator and LED Experimenter Dan Burns
Dan Burns is a physics teacher at Los Gatos High School in the San Francisco Bay Area and a Faculty Scholar at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he conducts teacher workshops and gives scientific talks for the public highlighting lab research.
Burns was selected by NASA to be an Airborne Ambassador for Astronomy and flew into the stratosphere aboard NASA’s SOFIA 747.
Recently, Burns’ video "Observing Color Changes in LEDs in Liquid Nitrogen" was a winner in the Ocean Optics Spectroscopy Star video contest. This should come as no surprise – a video of a Burns workshop on gravity has over 50 million (!) views on YouTube, and he is a frequent workshop leader and curricula developer for organizations including NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and the SETI Institute.
Prior to becoming a teacher Burns was an aerospace engineer for Lockheed/Martin where he developed advanced space systems. Burns has a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Illinois, a physical science teaching credential from San Jose State University, and a master’s in instructional technology from the American College of Education.
We used this opportunity to ask Burns about his experience as an engineer, teacher and physics enthusiast:
OO: What first inspired your interest in science?
DB: I have been interested in science and engineering for as long as I can remember. I remember watching the early manned space missions at the house where my kindergarten met. We normally were in the basement and backyard but if there was a space launch, Mrs. Williams would bring us upstairs to watch. These would have been the Gemini missions. I was always reading about science, doing experiments with my chemistry sets, electronics kits, and making my own rockets like Homer Hickam in the movie October Sky.
OO: What motivated you to become a teacher after having worked as an engineer?
DB: I was working on strategic military space systems for Lockheed during the Cold War. I believed in deterrence and was proud to be a part of keeping the peace. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I reevaluated what I was doing and why. Teaching seemed to be a natural thing to go in to. I spent a lot of my time as an engineer "teaching" our customers (Air Force and other government organizations) about our designs and approaches and enjoyed it. I thought I could help students become the engineers and scientists we would need for the future.
OO: What has been the most rewarding part of your teaching experience?
DB: I enjoy seeing the tremendous amount of growth my students exhibit during the school year. They have trouble noticing because it is a gradual process, but it is striking to me. I wish I could have them travel back in time and talk to themselves on the first day of school. No matter what grade they end up with, they all increase their abilities in many ways that will assist them in whatever career path they choose.
OO: How have students changed since you first became a teacher?
DB: They are more capable than the students I first started teaching back in 1992, at least in the ways that are exhibited in my class. They are better at math, problem solving, and using unfamiliar lab equipment. I believe much of this is due to the increased competition for spots at selective universities. Unfortunately, this also has increased their stress level.
OO: What role does spectroscopy play in your curricula? What insights can students and others glean from using optical sensing technologies like spectroscopy in their work?
DB: Spectroscopy has always been a big part of our Earth/Space Science class. The invention of spectroscopy was fundamental to the beginning of astrophysics. Students learn how to use handheld spectrometers to measure the wavelengths of sample light sources. They then try to identify the elements present in unknown spectra. They also learn about many other things that can be learned about objects in the universe from their spectra like radial motion, temperature, magnetic properties, etc.
In my teacher workshops at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory we use spectrometers to study the absorption spectra of chlorophyll and the decay curve of photo-chemical reactions, and to identify types of food coloring used in beverages and other products.
OO: How can technology companies encourage even more young people to pursue careers in science and technology?
DB: Supporting extra-curricular science activities in middle and high school would be a great way to encourage students to pursue careers in science and technology. Providing financial support to ongoing activities like local science fairs and Science Olympiad competitions would be an easy way to get started. A more effective approach would be sponsoring science research classes like we have at Los Gatos High School. These classes need to have small class sizes and access to expensive equipment like spectrometers to be successful. They need a dedicated teacher willing to spend time working with students after school and on weekends. They also need industry and academic mentors that specialize in the research areas that students pursue. This requires resources that many school can't provide. If I was the CEO of a tech company I would find a nearby high school to start a class like this and then try to expand to other schools.
OO: What surprises you most about science and technology today?
DB: I am surprised by the low regard for science and technology by government and corporate leaders in the USA. Spending on research and development as a percent of GDP has stagnated. Well supported scientific findings are ignored by leaders for short-term political gain. Government agencies gag scientists when their research does not support policy. Industry cuts back basic research to boost their quarterly reports. We are living off the science and technology research done by our parents and grandparents while shortchanging our children and grandchildren. This is not happening in many other countries. If we want to preserve our scientific, technological, and economic leadership in the world, we need to renew our commitment to basic research and education.