Alabama Academy of Science gives top honors to Wyss

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Larry Krannich, Ph.D., was excited when the call for nominations was made for the 2011 Alabama Academy of Science Wright Gardner Award.

Mike Wyss, director of the center for Community Outreach and Development, recently was honored by the Alabama Academy of Science with its 2011 Wright Gardner Award — the top state science award given by the group annually.

The award is the highest honor bestowed by the Academy and has been given annually since 1984 to honor individuals whose work during residence has been outstanding. Krannich, UAB professor emeritus in chemistry, says J. Michael Wyss, Ph.D., professor of cell, developmental and integrative biology and director of the center for Community Outreach Development, is the perfect person to honor with the award. Krannich nominated Wyss, and he was selected by the group as the 2011 award recipient. Wyss was presented the award earlier this month.

“Dr. Wyss’ exceptional contributions to neuro-cellular mechanisms research and science-education outreach through bringing biomedical science into the K-12 classroom certainly exemplify the spirit of this award,” Krannich says. “He is a true role model for transferring knowledge and expertise to the community to impact the lives of others through enhanced educational opportunities. He is a very caring, truly dedicated individual who shows this in all that he does.”

Wright Gardner was a progressive scientist and educator, and was the principal founder and first president of the Alabama Academy of Science from 1924-26. Persons nominated for this award have included researchers, teachers, industrialists, clinicians, scholars, active members and office-bearers of the academy.

Wyss’ efforts have provided numerous venues in which UAB science faculty and students can be involved and make their expertise available in area schools, the McWane Science Center, science fairs and other science competitions. These venues permit faculty and students to hone their advocacy skills for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and meet with students who otherwise would never have the opportunity to talk or interact directly with a scientist.

Wyss also has fostered strong partnerships with the Birmingham City Schools Science Department to create many innovative, hands-on science education experiences for students and teachers.

“These efforts demonstrate UAB’s commitment to the community and provide a truly unique way of partnering to support science education,” Krannich says. “It is a real win-win situation because UAB directly benefits by the enhanced science capabilities and enthusiasm of incoming students who have participated in these programs while they were in K-12 classrooms.”

In fact, K-12 classrooms throughout central Alabama have benefitted from Wyss’ dedication. His commitment to bringing biomedical research science into area classrooms is evident through programs like BioTeach and summer science camps and the initiatives created as part of CORD and the Alabama Math Science & Technology Initiative.

“Through his enthusiasm, hard work, and careful planning, Dr. Wyss has helped to transform the landscape of Science Education on the local, state and national level,” Krannich says.

Wyss recently spoke to the UAB Reporter about his love of science, the art of teaching it and his motivation to engage young students.

Q. What are your thoughts on receiving the award?

A. I am very humbled when I look at the list of great UAB and Alabama scientists who have received this award, including Max Cooper, Thomas Wdowiak, Richard Compans and Wright himself. These were the makers of science for the 20th century in Alabama. I also appreciate that the academy recognizes the great importance of all facets of science and math K-20 education for 21st century Alabama. What they recognize, however, is really the work of a great staff and hundreds of UAB faculty and trainees who make CORD’s science-education initiatives possible.

Q. Have you always been drawn to science?

A. Since my elementary school years, I have been interested in how things work. My father can attest to my disassembly of tools, etc., to discover how they worked.  Unfortunately, I often did not get them back together properly.

Q. Why is encouraging area teachers and students to learn so critical?

A.  The economy of the 21st century is going to be based largely on having a very well-informed workforce in science, math, engineering and technology. While 20th century America enjoyed prosperity based on a great laborers and natural resources, in the 21st century, production has largely moved to other countries with lower labor costs. What counts now is intellectual capital. While AMSTI and other state programs give teachers a basic understanding of how to teach science, CORD’s other programs, like our SEPA initiatives, take the teachers to the next level of truly understanding the science they teach.

Q. Is there an art to teaching science?

A. Hands-on, inquiry-based science has reawakened the spirit of students in Alabama and around the nation. The students still learn basic concepts, but they also discover for themselves; that discovery knowledge tends to be deeply engrained in them. We have seen many students who were struggling in the traditional didactic teaching system, suddenly catch intellectual fire and become outstanding high-school and college students.

Q. What motivates you to spread your love of science?

A. All you need to do is spend an afternoon teaching a kid who “just couldn’t get it,” and suddenly have the kid say “I got it. I can learn. I am somebody.”

Q. What is our community’s potential if we can train more scientists?

A. Without adequate training in STEM disciplines, workers will find employment opportunities lacking, and the state will not have a workforce that will attract modern business and industry. Whether it is biomedical research or working on the line at Mercedes, the 21st century workers will need to be versatile in science and technology. With that kind of trained workforce and all the other resources Alabama has (including UAB), we can be a top productivity state with a very strong 21st century economy.