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Emerging Potential
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.

The "Fun 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
After 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.

Moreover, 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 S&T
The 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.”

Freeman 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?
The 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!

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