Physics Professor Leonard Kisslinger Honored with Carnegie Science Award for Career-Long Dedication to STEM Outreach
By Emily Payne
Carnegie Mellon Professor of Physics Leonard Kisslinger has received this year’s Carnegie Science Award for Leadserhip in STEM Education in honor of his career-long dedication to Science, technology, engiennering and math (STEM) outreach for students in underserved schools and from disadvantaged families in the Pittsburgh area. In 1998, he started Carnegie Mellon’s Physics Concepts Outreach Program. Now called the the CMU/Colfax Physics Concepts Outreach Program, Kisslinger has successfully worked with hundreds of students, teaching them science through hands-on projects and improving their self-confidence.
“I started this program about twenty years ago when I learned that no students from Milliones Middle school, a magnet on science and technology located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, had presented a project at the Pennslyvania Junior Academy of Science science fair,” Kisslinger said. “The principal told me that 80 percent of the students had never met their father, and that their family life does not let them carry out a science project.”
The program began by bringing Milliones students to Carnegie Mellon to carry out STEM projects under the guidance and support of undergraduate student mentors. After Milliones closed, Kisslinger moved the program to other schools, including Reizenstein Middle School in East Liberty and Helen Faison in Homewood. The program now resides at Colfax Middle School, where teachers help to ensure that at least two-thirds of the students who participate in the program come from disadvantaged households that would not be able to access this type of educational enrichment without the Physics Concepts program.
Each year, the program brings 20-30 students to Carnegie Mellon where they learn science fundamentals. Students work with undergraduate student mentors to build and conduct a scientific experiment and collect and analyze data. The students also learn public speaking and presentation skills, which they use to present their projects at the Pennslyvania Junior Academy of Science (PJAS) science fair.
The students consistently have a great level of success. For example, in 2016, 29 students completed projects, 24 presented their projects at the PJAS regional science fair, and 10 won first place and four won special awards. The 10 first place students traveled to the PJAS state fair, where seven won first place awards. This year, eight more students took first place at regionals and are headed to the PJAS state fair in May.
The program also brings 6th grade students to Carnegie Mellon to participate in science learning through lectures and hands-on demonstrations by Carnegie Mellon physics faculty on basic concpets such as force, energy, momentum, temperature and the structure of atoms.
Through the Physics Concepts outreach program, Kisslinger has engaged more than 500 7th and 8th grade students—many from disadvantaged families—in science, and introduced basic science learning to more than 330 6th grade students. He also has given an estimated 400 Carnegie Mellon students the opportunity to mentor these students.
“What is most meaningful to me is that my program is based on the idea that the best way to teach science to young students is not by having them read books, but by carrying out hands-on science projects,” said Kisslinger.
While not every student goes on to become a scientist, the skills that they learn, like critical thinking and public speaking, as well as the self-confidence they gain, will benefit them regardless of what path they choose. The program is just as important for the mentors as well— some of whom have taken what they learned from Kisslinger and started mentorship programs of their own as graduate students and faculty at other universities.
The Carnegie Science Awards will be presented at a banquet on May 12. Other Mellon College of Science recipients include chemistry Professor Neil Donahue, who will receive the Enivronmental Award, and chemistry doctoral student Genoa Warner, who will receive the University/Post-Secondary Student Award.