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Taking Education Hi-Tech: Q&A with Diane Baxter

Diane Baxter is the Director of Education at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UCSD. Before joining SDSC in February of 2005, she developed environmental science education programs at the North Carolina Aquarium, Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research, and Quail Botanical Gardens.

Q. Tell us about the educational programs now in place at SDSC.

Baxter: SDSC education programs support the infusion of information and communication technology (ICT) resources into in K-16 education. Our hallmark programs and products (TeacherTECH and our web-based educational resources) are designed to serve what is considered "formal" (in-school) education, addressing first teachers, and then (directly and indirectly) students.

We also serve "informal" education - primarily through community collaborations. To expand these programs, we are developing a multi-player, interactive game and computer camp programs.

We share a national challenge to address the lack of full participation by women and minorities in science, math, engineering, and technology graduate programs and careers. In all of our programs, we consciously and conscientiously strive to create opportunities for broadening participation in cyberinfrastructure. That takes careful listening to others' needs and creative collaboration to meet those needs.

Q. What is SDSC's role in science education?

Baxter: We can play a significant role in helping teachers and students to move beyond basic computer literacy to what is termed "ICT fluency" by creating ways to integrate technology enhancements into science, engineering, math, and humanities courses. In our courses, workshops, and curricula, we want teachers and students to see and use integrated, enabling cyberinfrastructure without needing to call it out as a separate course.

SDSC has a special role to play in science education. As the data-oriented supercomputer center, we're using data to shape our educational approach. Understanding the nature of scientific evidence (data) is an essential foundation for making sense of every field of science. Scientific evidence is dramatically illuminated when students can collect data, then use data visualization tools to show the unfolding story of natural phenomena.

Q. What were your experiences as head of education at Birch Aquarium?

Baxter: Ocean science, like cyberinfrastructure, encompasses many fields. I had the opportunity to participate in developing ocean science standards for the California science curriculum framework in the late 1980's. Ocean science can integrate many fields of science, linking them to compelling, real-life issues. As head of education at first Scripps Aquarium and then the Birch Aquarium at Scripps from 1984 to 1998, I enjoyed working with my colleagues to create a vision for where the aquarium's education programs for all audiences would grow, and then developing and implementing a plan to get there.

My job at SDSC presents a similar challenge. It's very exciting to be part of SDSC now, and I feel very fortunate to work with such a wonderful team of colleagues. One significant difference between my challenges there and here is that my graduate degree is in ocean science so I felt relatively comfortable with much of our program content. At SDSC, I depend upon the content knowledge of others, though my colleagues very graciously and generously teach me more each day.

Q. What are the benefits of SDSC's relationships with the Preuss School and Gompers Charter Middle School?

Baxter: It's hard to overstate the value of those partnerships to SDSC. Both schools allow us to see the real bottom line of what we do. Through a sustained relationship with them, we learn which of our programs are most effective and how to strengthen others. We cherish the wonderful Preuss students who have worked as interns at SDSC. They have given us far more than they have taken, and we hope to maintain contact with them as they continue in life. While Gompers students are younger, we do hope that by expanding our high school internship program (which we are doing this year), we will be able to develop similar relationships with Gompers students as they go on to other high schools.

The educational challenges we face are significant. It is too easy to think that you've figured out the answer because it all fits well into a publication or a proposal. But it's only when you watch students' understanding grow, their skills develop, and their future prospects actually begin to open up that you really experience success.

We all know that we work hard, and we can easily quantify our output. At Preuss and, we hope, at Gompers, we will begin to measure outcomes, and to understand the true value of our work. Students' success, supported by our programs and their teachers, is the most meaningful reward we seek.

Q. What do you do in your spare time?

Baxter: Most of my non-work time is spent with family and friends. I have been blessed with the best of both, and my only real regret is having too little time with them. When I'm being truly self-indulgent, I work in my garden. Although I'm not artistic in any traditional sense, my garden has become my palette for creativity. Like my children, each plant has something special to cherish. (Unlike my children, though, they don't need orthodontics or college tuition).

I enjoy creating mini-gardens, each of which treats the senses with its own special collection of colors, textures, scents, tastes, and surprises. Gardening works my otherwise sedentary body, rests my mind, feeds my soul and creates a wonderful place to welcome friends.

Q. You recently returned from the Tapia Conference. What were your impressions?

Baxter: In October I attended my first Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Undergraduates, graduate students, early career professionals, and established computer scientists all attended, creating a glorious computer geek rainbow. Students presented posters on their own research, two of whom received $1,000 scholarships for their stellar work. Throughout the conference, from industry through academia, there was genuine recognition of the richness and strength that a truly diverse community of colleagues brings to our field. I was heartened by the success of the magnificent young men and women who had accomplished so much with so few peers at their sides. Their dignity and strength energized all of us to dedicate more time and resources to expanding their ranks and building a community that really reflects our country's diverse population.