Shannon Greco: a self-described “STEM education zealot”
Shannon Greco, a science education program leader at PPPL, has been named one of the YWCA Princeton’s “women of excellence” for her work with young women and disadvantaged youth, including her help in starting two all-girls robotics teams for the YWCA Princeton.
Greco organized PPPL and Princeton University volunteers to coach and advise two teams of girls ages 9 to 14 competing in a Lego robotics project for the FIRST® LEGO League and coached one team herself. Greco is also working on fostering a partnership with the Northstar Academy in Newark, and is leading Science Education’s high school internship program. She established an energy camp for Trenton High School students last summer that taught students about various types of energy.
“Shannon’s leadership, passion for science, and being a role model for this unique all-girl team has resulted in empowering girls through scientific literacy and positioned the teams for their first competition in November 2015,” said Cheryl Rowe-Rendleman, the first vice-president of the YWCA Princeton’s Board of Directors, who nominated Greco for the award.
The award, which Greco will receive at the YWCA Princeton’s “33rdAnnual Tribute to Women Awards Dinner” on March 3 at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton, is given to women who “embody the YMCA’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.” For more information on the event, go to www.ywcaprinceton.org/tribute.
“I’m incredibly honored,” Greco said. “It’s very nice to be recognized for doing something that you love and that makes you feel like you’re making an impact.”
Science programs for under-served youth
“I might be a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education zealot,” Greco admits. “I’m all right with that. When something’s that important to you, you get excited about it, and it comes across. I think people are surprised by how animated I am but then they get excited, too.”
Greco firmly believes that science education is a critical component of every youngster’s education and gives him or her skills they can use in every aspect of their lives. “It helps them think critically and have a healthy respect for the data,” she said. “It protects them from getting the wool pulled over their eyes and helps them make decisions about their health and their family, it even helps them with their voting decisions. And if they actually go into one of these STEM fields, they can contribute to solving the energy crisis or climate change.”
Greco grew up in Houston until she was 15 when her father got a job in Saudi Arabia and Greco attended an international boarding school in Switzerland. She then went to the University of Arizona where she studied international studies and spent a semester living in Mali. She said she regrets an early decision to switch out of chemical engineering but she had the mistaken idea that she would be isolated in a laboratory as an engineer. “Nobody told me I could have worked at CERN!” she said half-jokingly.
A part-time job becomes a career
After graduation, she spent a few years traveling around the world. When she wasn’t traveling, she came home to live on her mother’s couch and work as a temporary employee at Princeton University. She began working part-time for Wole Soboyejo, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who was forming the U.S./Africa Materials Institute. She also worked part-time for Dan Steinberg, the Education Director for the Princeton Center for Complex Materials (PCCM), a research center supported by the National Science Foundation. She met her husband, Scott, an entrepreneur, in 2003 and the two married in 2009.
Greco spent 11 years as an education outreach coordinator at PCCM. Steinberg became her mentor and encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree in science education from Montana State University. She defended her thesis when she was six weeks pregnant, took a year off from her studies, and returned to the university with her then 16-month-old in tow to finish her coursework.
When Greco came to PPPL for an interview two years ago and was asked why she wanted to come to work in PPPL’s Science Education program, she replied, “It seems like you guys have more fun over here!” She said she appreciates the camaraderie and the passion everyone in Science Education has for science education. “The way all our different roles interact works out really well,” she said. “I always tell people I’ve never laughed so much at work,” she said. “To be able to do cool things and get people excited about science, you can’t beat that.”
Zwicker said he hired Greco not only because of her science education background but also for her ability to evaluate programs. He cites the example of Greco’s surveys of students involved in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program, a summer internship program at PPPL for college students. The surveys will show how many go on to graduate programs or to careers in science. “That’s where I believe she has actually improved our overall programmatic value,” Zwicker said. “She’s taken that background and applied it to existing and new programs.”
Greco’s colleague Arturo Dominguez, a senior program leader, said Greco has reinforced some basic science education principles such as the value of repetition, the importance of using analogies and the importance of not overestimating what people know. “She’s very engaged, she is very thorough, she doesn’t mind if it takes time for the explanation to get through, she makes sure students are really understanding it, even if she has to repeat it or change the approach,” he said.
Making physicists dance
Dominguez recalls watching Greco recently brief physicists volunteering at the American Physical Society’s expo on how to explain states of matter to young people. Greco made them learn a dance she created to explain each state of matter. Soon she had a group of serious scientists doing a dance that required them to stand still and wiggle to demonstrate what molecules do in a solid, move around a bit more for a liquid, move around a lot for a gas, and finally fling a badge or scarf to the side to demonstrate electrons breaking free from the atoms in a plasma.
The silliness has some serious research behind it, Greco says. As a science educator, she knows that kinesthetic learning in which learners move their bodies around, is a great way to teach a difficult concept. “I don’t care what age you are, I’m still going to make you do the states of matter dance,” said Greco. “I’ve seen adult teachers get their world rocked by this. It’s not just kids that this works for.”
Atiba Brereton, an engineer at PPPL who coached one of the Lego robotics teams alongside Greco, recalls first meeting her in 2014. Then "visibly pregnant", she was delivering a presentation on basic science education principles for tours. “I found the presentation so useful that I asked her for permission to share it with my old fabrication lab at Howard University, to aid with training students to give tours,” Brereton said.
Balancing parenthood and career
Balancing a demanding career with raising two young children, Lukas, who is almost 4, and Ryan, who is 16 months, when both she and her husband are working is “really hard,” Greco says. Her children are in day care and her mother, who recently retired, is a tremendous help, she said.
But Greco added that there are ways in which her professional life enriches her life as a mother, and vice versa. “I feel it’s made me a better parent because I’m applying all these things I’ve learned on my own kids to help them figure out how things work in the world. But also, they’re my little lab rats. I’m testing things out on them all the time.”
One way Greco copes is to sometimes bring Lukas or Ryan along to after-work activities. “She often attended meetings with her robotics team with her young child comfortably nestled in a baby carrier over her shoulder,” the Y’s Rowe-Rendleman said. “This is more than a heart-warming picture. It truly sends a message to the young girls and teens that one can be both a scientist and a mother. One does not need to choose between the two demanding and rewarding roles.”
PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.
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