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If you like Leon Lederman's story, you might also like:
Gary Becker,
Freeman Dyson,
Judah Folkman,
Murray Gell-Mann,
John Mather,
Linus Pauling,
Glenn Seaborg,
Edward Teller and
Charles Townes

Leon Lederman's recommended reading: The Meaning of Relativity

Leon Lederman also appears in the videos:
From Student to Scientist: My Life in Science,

Mystery of the Cosmos: Life's Place in the Universe

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Leon Lederman in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Meet a Nobel Laureate

Related Links:
Nobel Prize

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Leon Lederman
Leon Lederman
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Leon Lederman Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Physics

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  Leon Lederman

You've devoted a lot of your energy and time in recent years to teaching ,and to teaching teachers. Why is that important to you?

Leon Lederman: Teaching has always been important to me.

Leon Lederman: I grew up at, as I mentioned at Columbia University, which happened to be a university -- and especially a physics department -- dedicated to doing a good job in teaching. And so we had that tradition. We were teachers, we taught. Sometimes, if you were very busy in a laboratory, you could get off a semester, but then you'd have to teach twice as much the next semester. And we didn't object to that. We liked that idea, and I was trained with that. And you're always teaching. You're teaching graduate students in combat, and you're learning from them. Teaching is always a teaching/learning process. If you don't learn when you're teaching, then you're not doing it right.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

So teaching was a big thing for me from the beginning.

Leon Lederman: When I left Columbia to become an administrator of a large laboratory, I started suffering withdrawal symptoms. You know, twitching, and saying, "Gee, I got to teach something." And so I started bringing in high school kids to teach them things. And then I learned that they were themselves, very frustrated because high school teachers often couldn't handle bright kids. Little by little, one thing led to another, and I got into looking at the whole educational structure. And so I did a lot of work with gifted kids, on the one hand, out in the boonies of the state of Illinois, and then I moved to Chicago about four years ago, and began to be interested in what we could do about a public school system in a large city.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Everybody knows, these days, that the American educational system is in bad shape.

Leon Lederman: Our system for educating kids over the last 20 years has declined dangerously. Our kids are not learning, and they're certainly not learning math and science. The net result is: the number of kids who are going into math and science is declining. If not for foreigners, we'd be in bad shape in this country, you know, in the training of engineers, mathematicians, scientists, technicians.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

There have been a lot of studies, hundreds of reports, but very little action. One of the places it hurts the most is in the inner cities. I'm now talking about it from the point of view of the well-being of the nation. I'm not talking about compassion or fairness. Put that aside for a moment, it might move you.

Leon Lederman: We're not going to have a good time in this country in manning the kind of work force we need, which is much more technological than ever, if we don't attract people that have never gone into science, traditionally. And, those are minorities, women, handicapped. These are untapped sources of people which we need. We have to desperately, do this.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

So, here's the big city of Chicago, with 400,000 kids, and the number of those who go into science is very small. Why"? There are many reasons, and everyone has their own favorite reasons, but what we saw is that the teachers are not trained in math and science. There are exceptions, I'm talking very generally. But especially in the early grades, where teachers have to teach everything, the preparation for math and science is very poor. They're afraid of math and science, and once they are, the kids catch it right away. So we took it on, as a job. Some people from the universities, and we enlarged our group to include museum directors, and teachers and principals, and scientists from the laboratories, and private sector people -- all the ingredients of a social system that are interested in education.

Leon Lederman: We formed a team. We formed a not-for-profit academy called The Teachers Academy in Chicago, and we were trying to set up a model for changing all the cities in the United States. I mean, my own research is in particle physics, which involves huge accelerators, and we learned from that, that you might as well do it right by doing the whole system. So here we are in the third largest school system in the nation, Chicago, trying to re-train all the teachers. Not a teacher in one school here, or two schools, or ten schools, or fifty schools, but 600 schools, all the teachers in Chicago. Re-train them in ways of teaching math and science that are delightful because it's a wonderful way to start a kid in being interested in learning.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
All kids are scientists. They're born scientists. They ask all these terrible questions that nobody can answer because they're scientists. So, what do you do? You beat that curiosity out of them and they stop asking questions. It's very hard to survive that. Our idea was to encourage those questions, re-do the way teachers handle kids. New curricula, new ways of talking to kids, new role for a teacher. The fundamental old role of the teacher was as a fount of all knowledge, and if the teacher shows a weakness that's terrible. In the new way, the teacher is not a fount of all knowledge, just a facilitator. The teacher talks to the kids and listens to the kids, and tries to find out how Johnny or Mary are thinking. That's her goal Not "Is it a right answer or wrong answer?" but the method of thinking. We're learning how to do that, and if we succeed in Chicago, we'll apply it to 25 other schools, and we'll all live happily ever after.

If you were a recruiter for science classes, how would you try to turn on a kid to study science when they think it's scary and complex and hard to memorize?

Leon Lederman: It depends on the age of the kid. The younger the child, the better off you are. Just let the child be natural. Surround the child with curious things which are fun and instructive. Soap bubbles, a little piece of dry ice. If you have a computer, that's wonderful, because a computer can teach, and help you teach. Take them out into the field. Show them living things. These things can be put into a context in which it's as much play as learning. If you excite them with the joy of learning, they begin to do better in their language courses, and so on. The way we pique their curiosity is by imitating how research is done.

Leon Lederman: For second graders, we do an experiment called, "the lifetime of a soap bubble." So we go into soap bubbles with a little bit of water and detergent, or whatever it is, and we get nice, beautiful bubbles, and we let them play with it, and shower their friends. There's a lot of loose things. Then we give them a stop-watch, and we show them how to start and stop the watch. And then, we're going to measure the lifetime of soap bubbles. The hold the wire hoop, they catch the soap bubble, they start. Then the bubble breaks, they stop. They record the time. And then they're told to tabulate the data. That's what a scientist does. So "How many bubbles live between zero and one second, between one and two seconds, between two and three seconds?" So they compile the data. Then, they're told how to graph the data. And they're interested, you know. So you make a graph of the distribution of the life time of soap bubbles. Pretty soon they're graphing it, and in their beautiful street English, one's saying to the other, think of this a second grader saying, "Which is your independent variable?" They're getting into what a scientist does, and having a wonderful time at it.

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This page last revised on Dec 18, 2007 17:47 EST
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