This Teacher Wants To Excite Your Inner Scientist : NPR Ed Ainissa Ramirez used to be an associate professor at Yale in materials science. Now she's taking her "science evangelism" out on the road.
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This Teacher Wants To Excite Your Inner Scientist

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This Teacher Wants To Excite Your Inner Scientist

This Teacher Wants To Excite Your Inner Scientist

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Not all teaching happens in the classroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Here's a space shuttle tile, and here's a blowtorch. I'm going to heat up the space shuttle tile, and you're going to see that it gets red-hot.

SIEGEL: Meet scientist and author Ainissa Ramirez. That's a clip of one of her many online videos. She explains things like why space shuttles don't explode when they enter the atmosphere. Acacia Squires from the NPR Ed team profiles Ramirez for our series, 50 Great Teachers.

ACACIA SQUIRES, BYLINE: You could look at it this way - for some teachers, the classroom is just too small. Ainissa Ramirez is one of them. She's trying to get the world excited about science through lectures, TED talks and videos, like this one, where she sets a sparkler on fire.

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RAMIREZ: So what's going on inside? Well, inside of the element are atoms, and inside of the atom are electrons. And the electrons get really excited with all of the heat - woo-hoo (ph). But what happens is...

SQUIRES: Her gift is explaining complicated stuff - how elements like strontium, barium and copper give fireworks and the universe color.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMIREZ: So astronomers use this to their benefit. What they do is, with their special telescopes, they look at planets. They can see different colors.

SQUIRES: Ramirez is an award-winning material scientist. She taught at Yale for 10 years. But now she's out in the world talking to regular people about science. So I started with a pretty obvious question, what is material science?

RAMIREZ: Ah, material science - you know, people ask me that. My mom doesn't know what material science is.

SQUIRES: More on that in just a second. One thing she says her mom does know is that Ramirez wanted to be a scientist ever since she was a little girl.

RAMIREZ: She actually said the first thing I wanted to be was a clown, and then after that it was a scientist. And my brothers would probably say I'm both, so...

SQUIRES: OK, back to material science.

RAMIREZ: It's people who are interested in how atoms interact, how they bond, and then from that information we can decide what is the best material for different applications. I call it atom whispering. So what'd I just say? A material scientist...

SQUIRES: She does that a lot - circling back, slowing down the ideas, re-explaining. It's part of what makes her a great teacher, a science communicator.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On behalf of the American Institute of Physics...

SQUIRES: And recently, the science world recognized her for it.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For bringing the excitement of physics and its cultural aspects to the public. Congratulations.

RAMIREZ: Thank you so much.

(APPLAUSE)

SQUIRES: Lots of influential scientists have won the Andrew Gemant Award - Stephen Hawking, also Brian Greene, author of "The Elegant Universe."

RAMIREZ: Alan Lightman, I got to have lunch with him.

SQUIRES: He's a physicist, professor and writer.

RAMIREZ: I mean, he's huge in my eyes.

SQUIRES: And the committee that chose Ramirez says she's not only a great scientist - she's written more than 50 technical papers and has six patents - but that she's doing a brave thing, something many scientists don't do - going beyond research, encouraging everyone to think about science in their own lives. Ramirez writes books, she's given TED talks. And she's got a new podcast, called Science Underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCIENCE UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Look out - she's Ainissa Ramirez.

RAMIREZ: And this is...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...Science Underground.

RAMIREZ: Our first story is on killer asteroids. There's about 4,000 or so asteroids that are big enough to take out a city, and they're kind of heading our way. NASA's working on it - sort of - so I think people ought to know about that.

SQUIRES: But if you ask Ramirez what she's really passionate about, it's young people, especially getting young people of color interested in science. Growing up in Jersey City, she said they were few, if any, African-American scientists she could look up to. And in her lectures now she's talking a lot about STEM - that's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math - like one this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMIREZ: STEM is a super power, but it has a kryptonite, and that kryptonite is this word - can't. See, the brain is this beautiful machine. Whatever you tell it, it will do. So if you say, I can do this, your brain will say, OK, we can do this.

JEREMY POINDEXTER: It can be lonely in material science, you know, especially as a minority.

SQUIRES: Jeremy Poindexter took Ramirez's introduction to material science course at Yale as an undergrad, and he was hooked. Now he's a Ph.D. student at MIT working on solar energy.

POINDEXTER: And I think that people like Ainissa are really important as role models.

SQUIRES: And Poindexter hopes to be a role model like her one day too. As for Ramirez, she says people are always asking her if she misses life at Yale.

RAMIREZ: I miss a couple of things. There's some people that I really miss. The copier was really awesome. The cookies were really awesome. Interfacing with students was also great. But that's about it.

SQUIRES: For now, she says, she's having a lot more fun. Acacia Squires, NPR News.

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