Steve Massie: Introducing grad...

Steve Massie: Introducing graduate students to atmospheric chemistry

Prepping for the class refreshes a scientists view of the basics

Steve Massie, a senior scientist in NESL/ACD spent August to December 2013 teaching in the Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science (EOAS) department at Florida State University (FSU) as part of UCAR’s University Visits in Scientific Interaction and Teaching (UVISIT) program. At FSU, Steve taught an “Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry” class to upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. With ACD pitching in leave for Steve, Eric Barron (president of FSU) loaning an on-campus apartment, the entire EOAS department stepping up to make sure the visit went smoothly, and a supportive spouse, this UVISIT experience epitomizes the collaborative spirit that makes these visits powerful and possible.

What sparked your interest in participating in UVISIT?

I’d previously taught a graduate-level class at the University of Colorado for a semester. I enjoyed that experience and so volunteered for the opportunity when FSU made its UVISIT request for an atmospheric chemist to teach the Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science department’s graduate course in the fall 2013 semester. The class is designed to provide students lacking a chemistry background with a better understanding of chemical processes in the atmosphere. Topics ranged from atmospheric composition to geochemical cycles and the greenhouse effect, to stratospheric ozone processes, to tropospheric air pollution, acid rain, and satellite remote sensing. Nine graduate students and two undergraduates took the class.

How did you benefit from the experience?

Teaching offers a great opportunity to get back to the basics. To teach an introductory course, you need to refresh your understanding of the basic concepts of atmospheric chemistry and physics. Working as a researcher, the intense focus on the details can lead to a loss of the big picture perspective — especially in this era when computers are critical tools for developing an understanding of atmospheric processes. It’s easy to get mired in the trees and splinters and lose sight of the forest. Getting back to the fundamentals and fundamental thinking helps frame one's thinking – you get back to the essentials of what goes on in the atmosphere.

While in Tallahassee, I also had an opportunity to interact with FSU faculty. All of my collegial interactions were enjoyable, but among my favorites were those with T.N. Krishnamurthy who, at 81, is a retired yet very active emeritus professor. We share an interest in environmental developments and issues in Asia, and frequently talked about GRACE, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. GRACE features two satellites that are making detailed measurements of Earth’s gravity fields, and the data are providing information on the depletion of aquifers in India and China. Another highlight was spending time with John Alquist. John is a professor dedicated to his meteorology students. He preps them for future careers in meteorology, helping them explore their future options as part of the regular classwork. For example, his curriculum encourages students to provide daily weather forecasts on one of FSU’s television broadcast channels. Many of his students have obtained employment in television- and weather-related commercial markets throughout the nation.

I also enjoyed campus life a great deal. My wife and I were serenaded by one of FSU’s College of Music performing groups. They were rehearsing across the street from my Dodd Hall apartment, practicing an Aaron Copland piece, Appalachian Spring, in preparation for a concert.

Is there anything you'd like to share with colleagues that might encourage them to participate in the program?

A key part of NCAR’s mission is service to our science community and society. A teaching experience like the one I had at one of our member universities is critical to achieving our mission. Not only does the teaching help achieve these goals, but through this kind of direct experience, we at NCAR gain an understanding of what the university needs are within the various sectors of atmospheric science. One-on-one interactions are critical for NCAR, for the university faculty, and for the students. Everyone benefits. 

How do you think FSU benefited from your visit?

As a teacher, I wanted to make sure the class was accessible and that students would finish the semester with a good grasp of the fundamentals of atmospheric chemistry and physics. With mathematics at the heart of so much of what we do, I had discussions with FSU faculty about ways to strengthen student preparation in that area. This also led me to realize how important it is to improve the nation’s mathematics education—the M in STEM. A science, technology, and engineering focus is critical for our nation’s future. Sputnik spurred on my generation – I’d like to see our nation raise the bar again.