Day in the Life: Teaching the next generation of scientists

Ph.D. student TJ McKenna discussing his involvement and love for the sciences, as well as conversing about STEM. (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus)

Thomas ‘TJ’ McKenna didn’t ask to be called ‘The Science Guy,’ but it happened anyway.

McKenna, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut studying science education, is a staff scientist at the Connecticut Science Center. His resume includes a masters in entomology, running a widely-read science blog, being cited as a co-author in a study on squirrel behavior, hosting two weekly science shows and, most recently, moderating a question and answer session for the Mythbusters.

McKenna’s main focus is currently on the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of teaching standards that help teach students about topics in the field of STEM.

“The way we learn science in classrooms now is very different from what we need to compete on an international level,” McKenna said. “We need to shift the way science is done.”

McKenna’s scientific debut was in his sophomore year of college. In 2007, McKenna helped run a study on squirrel behavior. The study, focusing how squirrels trick rivals who try and steal their nut caches, was featured on Animal Planet’s ‘The Most Extreme.’

“That was my first (time) with TV stuff,” McKenna said. “I knew that this was a different way that I could get out there.”  

After he graduated, McKenna said that he was offered a position at the then-new Connecticut Science Center, the first staff scientist hired by the institution. His job was to help create programs and lesson plans for visitors at the museum, as well as helping to create demonstrations and encouraging students to learn about science.

Some of these programs, McKenna said, include aquarium exhibits, overnight sleepovers at the museum and a teen innovation program.

“(We) bring in students who normally wouldn’t see themselves as scientists and give them experiences technology, (like) Raspberry Pi,” McKenna said. “We… provide the kind of support [so] that they can feel comfortable and confident that they have their identity recognized. It’s a little like cheerleading… It starts to change the way that they think about what they can do.”  

McKenna’s job involves working with teachers, he said, as well as being involved in the media. He hosts two television shows, ‘Weekend at The Science Center’ and ‘Science Sunday’ on WFSB 3, with the aim of educating the public about various topics in science, he said.

McKenna said that when he gives a demonstration, whether it’s on how vinyl records work or the different types of collisions, he tries to encourage the audience to discover the reasons for themselves.   

“I don’t try and give away the answers,” McKenna said. “I give people more questions…. Everything in (traditional science education) that you’re supposed to know is just this book of facts. Science is more about how you think and how you apply that thinking.”

Despite the budget cuts threatening school’s science programs, McKenna said that the field of STEM is highly important in classrooms.

“When you think about innovations and the kind of people, or the kind of discoveries that have pushed society ahead, a lot of them come from STEM fields,” McKenna said. “The people that you see on the news, the Elon Musks, the people who are talking space travel... are going to be connected to STEM fields. I think having more people, having a more diverse crowd that are involved... is better.”

One of the ways McKenna encourages STEM involvement is through his blog, Phenomena for NGSS. The site features various articles, videos and gifs of different questions and topics in the field of science, such as bicycle aerodynamics and deer migration. The point of these topics, McKenna said, for teachers to use them to get students to ask questions.

“There’s so much cool stuff in science that not a lot of people get the opportunity to figure out,” McKenna said. “I started this as a pile of resources that science teachers can use. It’s hasn’t been up a year and over 100,000 people have been using this site… for their students to understand and work with. (It makes) STEM more approachable.”   

So far, McKenna said, his techniques have been met with enthusiasm from students, but some resistance from educators and administrators used to ‘the old way’.

“One of the natural reactions is, ‘This wasn’t how I was taught,’ “ McKenna said. “When you think of science classes, you go to lectures, you go to labs… what you’re taught in the lecture is confirmed in the lab, you go to the next part in your worksheet... You’re not doing anything real. You’re just walking through the steps.”

When McKenna teaches a class, he demonstrates a certain phenomena-- such as water vapor condensing as it cools-- and lets students work their way through the explanation behind it by themselves, he said.

This encourages them not to memorize a pamphlet, McKenna said, but to think scientifically about the world and question the occurrences around them.

“It gives you a mindset,” McKenna said. “There’s a world outside of our daily grind. It slows things down. Science teaching is a way of thinking about the world... It’s a shift from learning about science to figuring stuff out.”  


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.