Uplifting science education
‘Outstanding Professor’ elevates hands-on learning for students and teachers
BY FRED SANDSMARK ’83
While a whining hair dryer fills a clear plastic 8-foot-tall balloon with its exhaust, CSUEB Professor Jeffery Seitz launches into the day’s lecture. He describes how warm air rises and how this mechanism, known as “uplift,” is responsible for the atmosphere’s vertical circulation and contributes to weather. Soon the room falls silent, and all eyes follow the balloon as it floats around the two-story lecture hall in the Valley Business and Technology Center. Suddenly, applause erupts among students in the introductory earth science class, and a satisfied grin crinkles Seitz’ bright eyes and salt-and-pepper beard.
Seitz, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has done the balloon demonstration many times at Cal State East Bay, and the way it makes the invisible visible — and engages students’ imaginations — always excites him. He’s also excited about where the balloon idea came from: a science teacher at an area public middle school. “These teachers have lots of innovative pedagogies, techniques, and activities that I’ve adopted in my courses,” Seitz says. He should know. He’s helped train almost 700 of them.
For his inventive teaching, ongoing geochemical research, and work with kindergarten through 12th-grade science educators in the East Bay, Seitz has been named the University’s 2009–2010 George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor. “Jeff is just tireless, and he’s passionate about what he does,” says Robert Curtis, science coordinator for the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) and one of six colleagues who nominated Seitz.
Seitz sometimes laments that he doesn’t spend as much time in the classroom as he’d like — his other responsibilities consume time — but he loves teaching, particularly in his specialty of geochemistry. “It may not be my students’ favorite class, because it can be pretty difficult,” he says with a knowing laugh. “There’s calculus.”
He understands just how intimidating the subject can be. “When a student comes to me and is struggling with (calculus), I tell them my secret,” he says, lowering his voice. “And that is, when I started in college, I was in math remediation.” In fact, Seitz started college as a music major and spent a year in remedial math before a caring professor recognized his aptitude and steered him toward geology. “So when I have a student who’s having problems with calculus or math, I tell them: You’re not the only one. I did, too,” Seitz says
One thing that helped Seitz “get” math was its use in modeling geochemical properties, a subject he now studies in his lab. Funded by a NASA astrobiology grant, Seitz is measuring how organic molecules behave at high temperatures and pressures — information that may help explain how life on earth originated.
Besides answering basic scientific questions, Seitz loves research because it makes him a better teacher. “As a science educator, I have to be a scientist as well,” he insists. “To teach science, you have to do science. Otherwise, you’re not going to be current, and you’re not going to be passionate.”
The lab is also a place where student lab assistants like Garret Rhett ’09 hone their skills and build their résumés. Rhett, now a CSUEB graduate student, remembers his first encounter with Seitz in 2006. “I was a physics major, but within 10 minutes of meeting Jeff, I’d changed majors to environmental science,” he recalls. “He made rocks seem fun and interesting.” He adds that Seitz is a generous and trusting supervisor, so much so that Rhett appeared as first author on an abstract based on Seitz’ lab work. “I was blown away when he let me do that,” Rhett says. “From what I’ve heard, most professors don’t do that.”
Many professors also don’t visit public school classrooms, but Seitz does. In 2002, he knocked on Scott Wagner’s door at Winton Middle School in Hayward. “I get things stuffed in my mailbox about educational programs and products all the time,” says Wagner, who teaches eighth-grade science. “But it’s not the same as showing up and explaining what you’re trying to do, like Jeff did.”
Seitz recruited Wagner for the Bay Area Environmental Science Teaching (BEST) Institute, a summertime project to train middle school science teachers. That project, begun in 2000, grew into the East Bay Science Project and spawned NASA LIFT OFF (a similar program for high school science teachers; its acronym stands for Learning Inspires Fundamental Transformation by Opening up Future Frontiers). Together, the programs have garnered more than $12 million dollars in additional funding from NASA and the National Science Foundation and delivered innovative science education techniques and content to teachers from about 120 schools — especially those with underserved populations — in 32 Bay Area districts.
“He was great, and the program was terrific,” recalls Wagner, who’s now at Alvarado Middle School in Union City. “Jeff was energetic and passionate about his subject matter and the need to teach science effectively and in an interesting way in middle schools. He was an unambiguous ‘plus’ to me and the other science teachers.”
From 1998 to the present, Seitz has helped attract $14.5 million in grant funding to improve science education in the region’s K–12 schools. And while he acknowledges that improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education is a national imperative, Seitz has a more personal motivation. “It’s another opportunity to talk about science,” he says. “That’s been my motivation in doing professional development work with teachers: the love of science and wanting to share that with other teachers.” And, as the hot-air balloon demonstrates, learning travels both ways. “By working with K–12 teachers, my teaching has improved greatly,” he observes.
Seitz says he was stunned and honored to get the outstanding professor award. “You could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out that I had received it,” he says with delight. “The thing that really gets to me is all the great professors who have gotten it previously. I’m now part of that list.” He cites last year’s recipient, Professor Susan Opp. “Sue has been a mentor for me since I came here,” Seitz says. “She taught me to be a full, well-rounded professor: doing research, doing service, teaching in the classroom, working with students — all of it.”
It’s a lesson that Seitz has taken to heart — and perhaps to extremes. He admits that it’s sometimes difficult to balance his many activities, but it’s worth the effort. “It’s a struggle to fit it all in a day,” he says. “But I love the science education work, and I love the research. Each one makes me better at the other.”