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Curious Ed Goes From "Gearhead" to Scientist
Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer designing robotic instruments for probing hard-to-reach planets. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the elementary schooler wondering if life exists anywhere besides Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers -- they are all connected by their quest to explore and understand our solar system and universe. This series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Albert Einstein once said, "I have no special gift -- I am only passionately curious." Similarly, curiosity played a big role in shaping Isaac Newton's genius. The simple phenomenon of an apple falling straight down to the ground from a tree piqued Newton's curiosity and led to his theory of gravity.

A photo of Ed Prather and a picture of a motocross rider

Curiosity led Ed Prather from cars and motorcycles to physics and teaching. Image Credit: NASA

A healthy dose of curiosity is what led Ed Prather from an interest in car and motorcycle racing to a doctorate in physics. Prather now imparts this curiosity to students as executive director of NASA's Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona.

Prather's research aims to uncover the difficulties students have when trying to learn physics and astronomy. He teaches an introductory astronomy class for first-year undergraduates who are not majoring in science and develops effective teaching methods that help students grasp difficult concepts.

Prather grew up a "gearhead." He focused on auto mechanics and did not take science and mathematics classes in high school. Racing cars and motorcycles was his passion.

"I was always curious about machinery," he said. "Hydraulics and electronics really fascinated me." Hydraulic systems are the secret behind car brakes, elevators and large machines such as bulldozers and cranes. These systems use a liquid to transfer force from one point to the other.

After high school, Prather chose jobs that ensured he would always be surrounded by machines. He worked as an auto mechanic and later as an assembly-line worker at a crane manufacturing plant. Repairing machines helped the always-inquisitive Prather build crucial problem-solving skills.

"I would ask engineers at the crane manufacturing plant questions about motorcycles or cars, but I didn't realize it was physics," he said. "I thought physics was some special substance that was like a magic potion you rubbed onto something to make it work."

Later, he took a new job writing the crane's repair manual. This required conveying complex ideas in a simple, clear way. His curiosity soon got the better of him; he decided to learn more about how cranes work. At 20 years old and without much science background, he began taking evening classes in hydraulics and electronics at the local technical college.

Suddenly, physics became less of an enigma and started to explain a lot about the machines' operation.

Eventually, Prather became an authority on machine repair at the plant. He got his first taste of teaching when he started training other mechanics to use the equipment. "The idea of helping someone understand was fascinating and fun," he said.

By then he had fallen in love with physics. Going to school to get a bachelor's degree and then a doctorate in physics seemed like a natural choice. In his doctoral work and ever since, Prather's research has combined both of his passions -- physics and teaching.

From his own experience, he understood that learning new concepts, such as the big-bang theory or the origin of the solar system, can be challenging for students. To help students understand these ideas better, he worked with his colleagues to develop a method of teaching called "lecture tutorials."

In lecture tutorials, teachers spend the first half of class giving a lecture. Then the students split into groups and spend the rest of the time working on tutorials. The tutorials contain lists of questions, which start easy and get progressively harder, and are often accompanied by pictures or graphs. The carefully crafted questions help deepen student understanding.

"They have to defend their answers to each other and explain their reasoning," Prather said. "This takes advantage of the social nature of learning, which is really more powerful than one-way lectures alone. Students often achieve two higher letter grades using the tutorials than they do from just a lecture."

Prather said that college students find lecture tutorials an exciting way to learn about physics and astronomy. He said that middle and high school teachers also have found the method useful in their classes.

Working with students, both as a teacher and a researcher, is the most rewarding part of his job, Prather said. He is glad he never gave up being inquisitive about the world around him -- that curiosity led him to find and pursue his dreams. And he still finds time for his passion: racing cars and motorcycles.

Ed Prather's work is funded by the Exoplanet Exploration Public Engagement Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Spitzer Education and Public Outreach Program. The Center for Astronomy Education also gets funding from a National Science Foundation grant for the Collaboration of Astronomy Teaching Scholars, or CATS. More information about the Center for Astronomy Education is found on the Web site http://astronomy101.jpl.nasa.gov   → .

Related Resources
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Center for Astronomy Education   →
Imagine the Universe!   →
StarChild   →

Prachi Patel, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies