Carnegie Mellon University
April 26, 2017

Leonard Kisslinger Wins Carnegie Science Award for Work with Middle School Students

Jocelyn Duffy

The CMU Physics Concepts Program is an outreach effort in which CMU students mentor middle school students in the Pittsburgh area. It was conceived by Physics Professor Emeritus Leonard Kisslinger more than 20 years ago and has been nurtured ever since.

On May 12, 2017, Kisslinger receives the Carnegie Science Award for his leadership in STEM education, honoring his long-term engagement for middle schoolers in a district where more than half of the students come from disadvantaged families.

More than two decades ago, while serving as a judge in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science or PJAS, Kisslinger was puzzled that no contributions were presented from Milliones Middle School, a magnet school for science and technology in Pittsburgh's Hill District. He visited Milliones shortly after the event to inquire and learned from the principal that "about 80 percent of the children at Milliones never met their father and their life at home is so disruptive that they cannot carry out a science project."

Still to this day, Kisslinger remembers the shock of this news and how he felt the need to act. In the 1995 fall semester, he brought a few Milliones students into CMU to start learning about science and carry out science projects under the guidance of engaged CMU undergraduates with a clear aim: to empower them with the skills to participate in events such as the PJAS science fair. By the year 2000, fifteen Milliones students carried out science projects with the help of their CMU mentors and presented at the PJAS science fair – and one won a first place award. He was the first African-American middle school student to win a 1st place PJAS award in Region VII.

Later that year, Milliones was closed. By that time, Kisslinger knew that there were other schools that needed his help and settled on Colfax Middle School. Selected by the Colfax science teacher, Douglas Wolfe, about thirty 7th and 8th-graders participate during the fall semester, with approximately half of them experiencing disrupted home lives.

Students attend weekly sessions each Tuesday. During the first three weeks of the fall semester, CMU student mentors prepare projects for which Diane Turnshek, a Special Lecturer at CMU Physics, provides the equipment and helps the mentors. On the fourth Tuesday, Colfax student mentees pair with CMU mentors to start their project to test a hypothesis associated with concepts in astrophysics, biological physics, or other areas. The middle schoolers gain hands-on experience by carrying out a scientific experiment, analyzing their data, and preparing a PJAS presentation by the end of the Fall semester. During the first weeks of the spring semester, the middle school students rehearse their presentations, showing they've learned the concepts, and prepare to present to PJAS experts at a formal seminar in February.

In 2017, eight Colfax students in the Physics Concepts Program won 1st place PJAS Region VII awards, most of whom probably would not have dreamt this up just a year earlier.

During the second semester – after the PJAS science fair – weekly lecture and demonstrations are held at CMU, during which 6th grade students join to learn some physics concepts and populate the next generation of middle schoolers in the CMU Physics Concepts Program

Outreach program

Curious middle schoolers follow with awe a physics discussion between Profs. Quinn and Kisslinger (left).