Director of outreach
College of Sciences and Mathematics
Mary Lou Ewald is the director of outreach for the College of Sciences and Mathematics. Originally from Fayette County, Ga., she grew up in a rural area that allowed a kid to explore the "wonderful outdoors." Ewald credits her mother, who didn't mind her bringing various small creatures into the house to study or rehabilitate, for fostering her curiosity for the natural world. Ewald's interest in science led her to Auburn University, where she has been for nearly 27 years. She received her undergraduate degree in physics and her master's degree in zoology, both from Auburn. Ewald is currently nearing the final stages of completing a Ph.D. in secondary science education, also from Auburn. During the span of a year, her department will host 18 to 20 science-and-math-based outreach programs, impacting more than 12,000 students and teachers. In addition to the department's on-campus programs, the COSAM Outreach has a significant impact on schools in the region through the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative and Science in Motion programs. In partnership with the College of Engineering, the department is also the national headquarters for the BEST Robotics program and works with 47 sites across the country, impacting nearly 15,000 students, to enhance Science Technology Engineering and Math education through robotics-related curriculum and competition. Lately, Ewald has also been involved in the planning stages for Auburn’s Flying Tigers team, a group of local educators who will experience a ride in NASA's "Weightless Wonder" aircraft.
1.What is the most rewarding aspect of directing the Outreach programs for COSAM?
Hearing a fifth grader tell his mother that he doesn't want to go back to school in the fall, but would rather just stay at Science Matters camp (a summer Outreach program) from now on, that's pretty rewarding! Our office staff and instructors work extremely hard to create innovative programs that have a lasting impact on young people, so when a parent tells me their child cannot stop talking about the cool science experiments they did at one of our programs, well, that is very satisfying. The ultimate reward is when a young person walks in my office and wants to help with our programs and then proceeds to tell the story of how they participated in our Summer YES camp years ago and now they are a freshman in COSAM. Goal accomplished!
2. What has been the proudest moment of your career thus far?
Two years ago, I had the pleasure of touring former Gov. Bob Riley around the coliseum during our annual South's BEST Robotics Regional Championship. When he entered the coliseum floor and heard 3000-plus kids loudly cheering for their teams' robots, he turned to me and said, "This is the most incredible thing I've ever seen! I've never seen kids cheering at an academic competition!" As a result of that moment, we received support to expand the BEST Robotics program across the state of Alabama so that thousands more students can experience that "aha" moment that comes from working hard as a team to achieve a common academic goal.
3. What do you enjoy most about working with K-12 students?
The amazing capacity they have for learning new things, especially at very young ages. I think educators (myself, included) are often short-sighted about the complex concepts that elementary students can grasp. Third grade is a critical time in a child's brain development. Schools are often not able to push children to the high level of their capacity to learn. In our programs, we have taught first- through third-grade students how to extract DNA from a strawberry, how to design an experiment to determine the chemical properties of cola and how to manage a budget spreadsheet to operate their own lemonade stand business. These are fairly complex math and science concepts for that age group, but they get it! They just need an opportunity, and that's what we provide. I have lots of ideas for new programs to bring to Auburn, and new ways to excite kids about science. There's so much that I still want to accomplish!
4. You and physics professor Ed Thomas organized the Flying Tigers event which allows for five educators to experience a flight in NASA's "Weightless Wonder" aircraft. How will this flight tie into COSAM's Department of Outreach mission?
The Flying Tigers project is a perfect example of how to blend two of Auburn's land-grant missions - Research and Outreach. Four teachers from Auburn City Schools and one AMSTI education specialist will travel this week to Houston, Texas, for a ride they will never forget. The teachers have worked with Dr. Thomas and his lab for the past three months designing science experiments they will test in microgravity conditions on NASA's Weightless Wonder airplane. They will integrate what they learn from their experiments into their science curriculum next year, impacting thousands of students. Helping bridge the often-wide gap between K-12 and higher education is one of the more satisfying aspects of my job. COSAM has so many incredible faculty doing outstanding research, yet the public (who pays our salaries!) often has no idea what goes on here beyond teaching. Outreach provides a vehicle for faculty to connect what they do to a larger audience. I’m the liaison who helps make those connections.
5. What hobbies do you enjoy when you are not busy planning and executing outreach events?
Traveling and collecting snails (art, figurines, jewelry) — hobbies that I often combine. I try to go on one major trip every year. In the past few years, I've been fortunate to visit Alaska, Italy, Hawaii, Belgium (twice…great chocolate!), Germany, Mexico, France and The Netherlands, and was thrilled to find snails everywhere but Alaska. I guess they aren't big on snails in Alaska. I have a long bucket list of new places to explore. Recently, I bought a canoe, so my travels will be a little closer to home as I join with friends to explore the incredible watersheds right in our back yard.