Inquiry-based Learning Inspired Lifelong Quest
As deputy assistant secretary for research and technology in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology), Marilyn Freeman, Ph.D., is a living example of the power of mentorship and the ability of participatory, inquiry-based learning to raise a new generation of thinkers and innovators. Dr. Freeman is the immediate past director of the Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Natick, Mass., the site of a vibrant STEM outreach program.
In elementary school, Marilyn Freeman was hindered by a learning
disability. She remembers her frustration but also the attention of
several adults who took the time to encourage her. In the fourth grade,
a perceptive teacher urged the young Marilyn to freely roam the school
library and look for a book that appealed to her. Her eye was attracted
to a thin book with a red cover and lots of pictures called "Fun With
Science." It was the first book she read cover to cover.
With …" series was written in the 1950s and 60s by Ira and Mae Freeman.
Ira was a physics professor and his wife was an educator. They were
skeptical about the rote learning concepts that were widely accepted at
the time, so they wrote books designed to encourage young people to be
inquisitive. "Fun With Science," for instance, explained how to
experiment with everyday things kids could find at home — much like the
NDEP-sponsored Material World Modules. Not only did young Marilyn try
the experiments in her mom’s kitchen, she became engrossed in the book
and learned to read.
“I remember the adults in my life who
taught me that I was worth something,” says Freeman. “Somebody saw in
me enough potential to help me see the potential in myself.” These
memories of committed adults have instilled in Freeman a “strong urge
to encourage kids to go from wherever they are to wherever they have
the ability to go.”
Learning Through Inquiry
graduating from college and a stint teaching math at an Army base in
Germany, Freeman took a job as a physical scientist at Picatinny
Arsenal in New Jersey. In the process of developing novel capacitors
for special applications, Freeman obtained her master’s degree in
materials science because “I didn’t really understand why the
capacitors we were developing worked.”
Though she loved the
laboratory environment, her bosses saw potential in her that they
wanted to develop. She accepted their offer of a fellowship at
headquarters under the tutelage of Picatinny’s technical director, Dr.
Thomas E. Davidson. At headquarters, after gaining some “notoriety for
enthusiasm,” Freeman learned that the Army needed someone who
understood electronic materials and capacitors to represent the
military in the electric gun program at the University of Texas.
Freeman’s boss “informed” her she would go there and study for her
Ph.D. while working for the Army.
"I took the path of higher
education because someone saw my potential and because of inquiry —
that is, the process of finding answers to questions,” notes Freeman.
Inquiry-based learning at any stage of the education process works
because it stimulates people to be curious and provides an avenue for
solving problems they care about.
“In my view, the type of
learning that NDEP fosters is not new but is based on a solid principle
that we had lost. NDEP programs are about leading inquiry and they have
relevance; again, something has to be familiar in order to stimulate
inquisitiveness. It’s an approach that worked for me but I haven’t seen
it in years,” says Freeman.
NSRDEC is a perfect place to engross
young people in inquiry-based STEM education because the questions
answered there relate to things that kids naturally care about: food,
shelter, clothing, footwear, physical comfort, and safety. “This is an
easy place to make those necessary connections with kids, no matter
what their age, because our work touches every aspect of a soldier’s
life, and by extension, everybody’s lives,” says Freeman.
every scientist, engineer, or other professional employed at this
unique Army lab has a strong sense of mission and an overriding
devotion to the soldier. “We are working for our soldiers and have a
high degree of pride in what we do,” says Freeman. “That commitment,
that enthusiasm, carries over into our STEM outreach activities.”
Saturday STEM Academy is an example of an educational outreach program
to which Freeman devotes personal time. Saturday Academy brings
youngsters from low-income neighborhoods in Boston to the Natick
Soldier Systems Center for a day of immersion in science and
engineering along with S&E mentors and Army personnel serving on
post. “It really opens these young people’s eyes to the range of
possibilities,” says Freeman.
After the most recent Saturday
Academy, Freeman concluded the day with a challenge and a promise. “I
told the young people: 'Stay in school, stay free from drugs, stay out
of trouble with the police, do your homework, and especially give a
chance to science and mathematics because you can do so many cool
things with these subjects.'” Freeman then handed each of them a
director’s coin engraved with an image of the Natick center and said,
“This doesn’t buy you anything. But if you do all the things I
challenged you to do, if you come back and show me the coin, even if
it’s five or more years from now, we’ll hire you.”
believes that some of them will meet the challenge and come back to
serve their country as civilian scientists and engineers. “This is our
future workforce,” says Freeman. “Once you get a spark, you have a real
chance for it igniting and burning bright.”
Postscript: Who Are Ira and Mae Freeman?
authors of "Fun With Science" opened up the world of reading and science
for young Marilyn back in the 60s. Ira knew Albert Einstein, a
notoriously disinterested student in his younger years. Einstein’s
thought experiments pertained to things he observed in nature.
Likewise, Ira and Mae believed that to learn, something must be
relevant or familiar in order to reach the level where inquisitiveness
begins. The Freemans put that theory to work in their "Fun With …" book
series that also includes "Fun With Chemistry," "Fun With Astronomy," and "Fun With a Camera." Years later, Marilyn was personally able to tell Ira
and Mae of her gratitude for opening the door of learning to her when,
by pure serendipity, she married their son and became Marilyn Freeman!