Secret Lives of Faculty: Dr. Dan Galiffa, tarantula enthusiast

There’s so much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see them doing on campus. In this occasional series, we take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time. 

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

Two of the most frightening things known to humans – advanced math and tarantulas – are some of Dr. Dan Galiffa’s favorite things. The associate professor of mathematics owns thirteen tarantulas and says the highly venomous spiders make great pets.

“They are one of cleanest and most fascinating animals,” Galiffa said, as his Honduran curlyhair “Curly” (Tliltocatl albopilosus), a thirteen-year-old tarantula about the size of his palm, slowly walks over and around his hand. “Each spider has a unique personality.”

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Dr. Dan Galiffa with two of his pet tarantulas

Rosalinda, a Chilean rose, was his first tarantula. Galiffa acquired her eight years ago and liked her so much that he has since gathered twelve more tarantulas, for a total of thirteen spiders of twelve different species, including greenbottle blue, Venezuelan sun tiger, Costa Rican zebra, Chilean copper, Mexican red knee, Arizona blonde, Brazilian salmon pink, Columbian giant red leg, and Mexican red rump.

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One of his most beautiful and exotic is Blue, a cobalt blue tarantula native to Myanmar and Thailand. As with most things in nature, the vibrant color is a warning.

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“They’re high venomous, extremely fast-moving, and one of the most defensive species of tarantula,” he said. “Many people who own them don’t handle them.”

Galiffa does and said she is a calm and “sweet” spider. That said, he is always respectful of the spider’s space and temperament. No stranger to deep research, Galiffa has done his homework.

“I spend a lot of time learning about them, reading whatever I can find, including some scientific articles and papers that can be pretty specific,” he said. “But I actually did a lot of my mathematical research work in epidemiology, so I’m familiar with the biological science.”

There is much work to do in tarantula taxonomy. “Scientists are still learning a lot of basic things about them,” he said. “The classifications are still not solid.” He estimates there are more than 1,000 species of tarantulas and new discoveries lead to changes in taxonomy. “There are about 45,000 known spider species, in general,” he said.

We talked with Galiffa and Curly (though she was pretty quiet) to learn more about tarantulas and how they can sometimes serve as teaching aids.

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What types of courses do you teach at Behrend?

The entire calculus sequence, differential equations, linear algebra, and other advanced math classes.

What is appealing to you about tarantulas?

They make really great pets. They are clean, quiet, easy to care for and they all have their own personalities. It is an exciting challenge to try and understand a species that is so far removed from humans. They communicate with their actions and behaviors.

Why do you think people are so afraid of spiders?

I think spiders get a bad rap. Anytime someone has an odd welt, and it has a visible hole, they call it a spider bite. I always ask the question, “Did you see the spider bite you?”  I’ve never had anyone say yes. More than likely, the injury was inflicted by a different insect. Spiders rarely bite unless they are directly threatened.

Where did you get your tarantulas?

I bought them at pet stores, online, and at exotic animal expos. A couple of them are rescues from people couldn’t care for them anymore.

What do they eat?

Worms, crickets, roaches. Basically, they eat anything alive that is smaller than they are. They only eat a few times a month.

You handle all of your tarantulas. Does each species feel different?

Oh, yes. The bristles can be soft, hard, very long, short, thick, or thin. Additionally, some tarantulas are much faster than others. Blue’s speed would blow you away. She could be on the other side of my office in seconds. The same is true of the Sun Tiger.

Are they venomous?

Yes, every one of them is venomous, but they are not aggressive. The venom is not all bad. It is used in some medicines, and it’s not lethal to humans.

What would happen if you got bit?

I have held my tarantulas thousands of times and have never been bitten. If someone were to get bitten, it would probably because they were careless in handling the spider.  In any event, there are two types of bites, dry and wet. A dry bite is a puncture wound from fangs. A wet bite is when the tarantula actually uses their venom. They rarely do that. They don’t even use venom when catching their prey unless it is absolutely necessary. A dry bite would be handled like any normal puncture wound with some antibiotic cream and a bandage. A wet bite should probably be seen by a doctor but, again, it’s rare and the venom is not lethal.

How long do they live?

Twenty to forty years with females living longer than males. I have eleven females and two males. When the males mature, they seek out females for mating and will die shortly after, so if a keeper has a male, it’s best to send him to a breeder after he matures.  I will have to do this with both of my males, and I’ll be very sad when that time comes. By the way, females can produce egg sacs with over 1,000 eggs!

You’ve used your tarantulas as teaching aids before in Behrend’s K-12 outreach programs. What do you teach with them?

There are many things we can teach with spiders – web strength and construction, genetics, population dynamics, gait analysis, and blood flow, which is quite fascinating in tarantulas since their blood flows through their entire body. They don’t have veins like humans do.

How can you use them to teach math modeling?

We can model them as predators and as prey. We can also study the genetic probability of obtaining certain variations of a given species using probabilistic models. For example, there are three forms of Chilean rose tarantulas – the gray, red, and pink color forms. My spider, Rosalinda, is gray form and Charlotte is a red form. The students in my workshops do a basic version of this very type of modeling and then get to see the differences in the color forms in my actual tarantulas.

Do you have any other pets?

I also have Madagascar hissing cockroaches and a skinny pig (hairless guinea pig) named Hamilton. I previously had two skinny pigs—Perry and Ty—who played games and did tricks.

What do you want people know about tarantulas beyond what we have covered above?

Here are some interesting facts:

  • Tarantulas do have eight eyes, but scientists are not sure how well they see.
  • Tarantulas have bristles, not hair. Only mammals have hair. The bristles give them a lot of information. So, yes, “spider senses” are a real thing, not just something made up for the Spider-Man comics.
  • Tarantulas use their senses to assess everything that’s happening around them and they have amazing perception despite the fact that they cannot smell and have no ears.
  • At the end of each of the tarantulas eight legs are two retractable claws, similar to those in a cat. They use these for mobility.
  • In addition to their eight legs, they possess two pedipalps or additional appendages that are located at the front of their bodies.
  • Since tarantulas are arthropods, they have to molt in order to grow. When a tarantula molts, it can often change color and grow exceedingly large.
  • Tarantulas can spin webs. The webs are not like commonly seen ones used to catch prey but are used to line their burrows and keep them safe, for example, spinning a trip “wire” near their home to sense prey and potential predators.
  • Tarantulas are opportunistic predators, which means they wait for the prey to come near their home, then attack it with extreme speed and accuracy.
  • Tarantulas have a wide variety of coloration and patterns. They are quite stunning when viewed in the right light.

Raise a Toast to Lake Erie: Faculty members partner with brewery and PA Sea Grant to raise awareness of aquatic invasive species

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

On a sunny August Saturday, a half dozen fans are lined up in front of the Mysterysnail Speedway, a four-foot plastic box with plexiglass dividers creating race lanes for a field of ten large snails. They place their “bets” and cheer for their chosen snail, each marked with a race number on its shell.

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As the oversized gastropod invaders make their way to the finish line, Dr. Lynne Beaty, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Behrend, explains why we don’t want them in our waterways.

“Mysterysnails are so named because females produce young, fully developed snails that ’mysteriously‘ appear. They’re a group of invasive species that originate in Asia but have found their way to Lake Erie,” Beaty said. “They compete with native species, alter nutrient ratios, and transmit parasites to wildlife.”

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Aquatic invasive species (AIS) are non-native plants, animals, or pathogens that harm the environment, the economy, and human and animal health. They are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and native communities of other species, and they can spread easily through unwitting human assistance and connected waterways.

Beaty and two other Biology faculty members, Dr. Adam Simpson and Dr. Sam Nutile, have been working with Kristen McAuley, lecturer in marketing, and Sara Stahlman, extension leader for Pennsylvania Sea Grant, to raise awareness about invasive snails (and other species) in the waters around the Erie region. Last summer, the team came up with a novel idea to reach adults: craft beer.

“Good beer needs high-quality, clean water and invasive species threaten our freshwater supply,” Beaty said. “So we thought a collaboration with Erie Brewing Company in Behrend’s Knowledge Park was a great way to promote AIS awareness because controlling invasive species can help improve water quality. We were thinking too that this might be an excellent way to reach adult audiences who are more likely to accidentally transfer AIS when they move boats to different water bodies.”

The group met with Erie Brewing’s brewmaster, Tate Warren, who was on board with creating a ‘draft series’ of special AIS-themed brews for invasive species awareness.

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The first, Mysterysnail Ale, “an amber ale loaded with flavors of bread, biscuit, and caramel malt,” debuted at a launch party, complete with the aforementioned mysterysnail racing, at Erie Brewing. Visitors had the opportunity to try a new brew and also learn about many AIS at tables manned by Behrend School of Science faculty members and staff members from Sea Grant, a research, education, and outreach program administered by Behrend.

The event was well-attended, and the Mysterysnail Ale was well-received. It currently has a 3.6-star review (out of five) on Untapped.com, a website where beer lovers rate and review brews.

Three more brews are planned in the AIS series: a Round Goby Rye, a Zebra Mussel Malt, and a Hazy Hydrilla. Each beer will launch with an event to raise awareness of the AIS the brew is meant to thwart.

In addition, for each of the beers, a promotional poster will be developed that will highlight the beer, the flavor, and the facts about the highlighted species. QR codes on the posters, which will be displayed at Erie Brewing  and other locations on the Lake Erie Ale Trail, will lead users to even more information about the featured AIS.

Mysterysnail Ale is currently on tap at Erie Brewing and other participating Ale Trail breweries, including Lavery Brewing, Arundel Cellars and Brewing, Twisted Elk Brewing, Brewerie at Union Station, Nostrovia, and Erie Ale Works. For more information about aquatic invasive species, visit seagrant.psu.edu.

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Secret Lives of Faculty: Meet Courtney Nagle, assistant basketball coach

There’s so much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see them doing on campus. In this occasional series, we take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time. 

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

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After just a few minutes of chatting with Dr. Courtney Nagle, associate professor of mathematics, one thing becomes clear: She’s a team player. As chair of the Secondary Education in Mathematics program, Nagle is also quick to share any credit for accomplishments with her colleagues.

Nagle can trace those team skills back not only to her schooling, but to a blacktopped basketball court behind her childhood home. It was there that Nagle and her older sister learned some of the most important lessons in life –resilience, teamwork, selflessness, and how to win and lose gracefully — from time spent on the court with their father, Terry Thompson.

For more than fifty years, Thompson has coached basketball in one form or another at the elementary school through college levels. In 1998, as the assistant coach of the girls’ basketball team at Girard High School, he helped lead his team, including his two daughters, to the state championship.

Today, he is still coaching – offering summer-long basketball skills camp on his backyard court for free to any area youth who want to attend. He has an assist from his basketball-loving daughter, Nagle, who enjoys teaching on the court as much as in the classroom.

Behrend Blog talked with Nagle to learn more about her “secret life” as a basketball coach.

What are some of your father’s career highlights as a basketball coach?

The largest number of years were spent coaching high school boys, including stints as the head varsity coach for Fairview and Girard as well as teams south of the Erie area. He was an assistant coach for the Girard girls’ basketball team during the years my sister and I played in the late 1990s. He even spent a few years as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Penn State Behrend in the early 1990s.

Was it hard being coached by your dad in high school?

At times, yes. He pushed me, and we spent a lot of extra time practicing. That wasn’t always easy. However, he was really good at leaving the games on the court. I often hear about parent coaches who rehash games and go over mistakes around the dinner table. We never did that. We left it all on the court.

He has a court in his backyard?

Yes. We moved to that house in Girard when I was 14, and that’s when they had the court put in. We grew up playing games on it. Kids in the community still use it regularly. It’s almost like a community playground.

Tell us about the Sunday clinics and how they got started.

The Girard community has always embraced basketball with many kids attending summer skills camps and summer-long clinics. Three years ago, when my son, Jack, and niece, Ainsley, were 5, my dad decided to start doing free clinics in his backyard. It was a way for him to get his grandchildren interested in playing basketball, but he also just enjoys working with young people on the fundamentals of the game. That is his favorite aspect of coaching.

Most of the kids who attend are from the surrounding community, including some of the children of my former teammates and classmates who still live in the Erie area. It’s fun to see the next generation start in the same way we did – playing on the same court we did.

After an hour of basketball drills and skills, my parents open their pool for an hour to anyone who wants to stay and swim. The kids love that part of the night!

What is your role on the court?

I’m in an assistant coach role. I do some of the drill demonstrations and work with the kids as we go through the various drills. I also help my dad get the word out about the clinics with social media posts and such.

What do you enjoy about the clinics?

I love watching kids learn the game and improve week after week. It’s such a fun and laid-back environment and the kids who attend are so excited to be there. We have a wide range of ages and abilities, but they all work together.

On a more personal note, seeing my older son learn from my dad on the same court I grew up playing on is pretty special. My 2-year-old, Benny, isn’t quite ready to play, but he joins in on the occasional drill.

My sister lives in Grove City, but usually drives up for the clinics, bringing her kids. My mom prepares the pool area and keeps the freezer stocked with popsicles for the kids to enjoy after playing.

Do you still play basketball yourself?

I hadn’t played much in the last ten years or so, but now that my son is starting to play, I am getting back into it. It’s mostly just family pick-up games. And, yes, my 79-year-old father still plays.

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Retiring Physics Professor Reveals Meaning of Life (Kinda)

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Jonathan Hall (5)
Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics at Penn State Behrend

Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics, began his career in a remote area of Borneo where the only “technology” he had access to was in the form of painted plywood chalk boards and a hand-cranked, mimeograph-like machine. He taught in a language he had learned just three months earlier.

This month, he will finish his career in education from home, where he has been teaching dozens of Penn State Behrend students remotely using online videoconferencing software and a host of other high-tech tools that would’ve been inconceivable at the start of his career three decades ago.

Yet, Hall, who has been teaching at Behrend for thirty-two years, says not much has changed.

“Though the technology available today for education is very different, the key ingredient for student success has not changed; the desire to learn is the most important part,” Hall said.

Sometimes that desire can be stamped out quickly in physics class, a subject many students find intimidating. Hall learned to build students’ confidence first.

“In my general education physics course, I found that if I started with a topic, such as color and light, that students enjoyed, their confidence in their ability to learn physics enabled them to achieve greater success in the course,” he said. “We still did the more challenging topics, but students did better when I would ease them into it later in the course.”

Over the course of his teaching career, Hall said he has learned as much as he has taught, and we couldn’t let him retire without collecting some of his wisdom on topics big and small.

What brought you to Behrend?  

A 1988 Mazda hatchback. And a job teaching at a college!

What types of classes have you taught over the years?  

Physics, Astronomy, Civic and Community Engagement.

Which classes have been your favorites and why?

Of course, I enjoyed teaching physics, but the advantage of teaching astronomy is that it’s not called what it actually is, which is “the physics of the universe.” Because it doesn’t include the word “physics,” students relax, and enjoy learning… physics!

What I enjoyed about Civic and Community Engagement is that it was team-taught with faculty from other disciplines, including communication, psychology, and sustainability. It was truly inter-disciplinary, which was great, and I learned a lot from my colleagues. With the service projects, students were able to put into practice what they learned in their majors.

What do you remember most about your first year of teaching?

I had been a high school teacher for five years before coming to Behrend. I enjoyed getting to know students in my classes from teaching them 180 school days, but when I started teaching college, I didn’t miss at all the “supervisory” duties of a high school teacher such as monitoring homerooms, study halls, etc. At the college level, I could focus on teaching students, not monitoring them. Also, though I wasn’t any smarter or more qualified than I had been before, the respect people (especially the parents of students) give college faculty compared to high school faculty was eye-opening.

What have you learned the hard way?

I started my career as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it truly was the toughest job I’ve ever loved. I had twenty-five class preps every week in a language that I had only started learning three months before. Speaking a foreign language is not one of my strengths. During the first three months, I wondered if I had made a mistake; about a third of the volunteers in my training group quit during this time. But I toughed it out. Things got better, and I enjoyed my second year so much that I extended my assignment and served three years. In order to survive those early months, one thing I learned to do was to listen intently; to pay attention to and catch both the verbal and non-verbal cues; to listen to everything the person was saying, not just the words.  That skill has carried over to make me a better teacher and I hope more understanding of others. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

How our children go out of their way to keep my wife, Katherine, and me informed of world and national events. Our daughter, Maria, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar when a coup overthrew the democratically elected government there. At the same time, our daughter, Liz, who is a Marine, was in Iraq.  Liz has also been deployed to Afghanistan (twice), South Korea, Chad, Australia, and Germany, and is presently at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Our son, David, lives in Portland and kept us up to date on the fires and protests in Oregon. Someday, we hope to be less well-informed.

What have you enjoyed most in your career?

I have always enjoyed teaching young people and helping them to achieve their potential, and that has not changed during my career.

Do you have a different perspective on the profession now?

When people ask me what I teach, I tell them I teach young people, not a subject.  As teachers, we have the task of preparing our students for the future; content knowledge is often a  means by which we teach more important lessons about life.

What will you miss the most?

I have been fortunate in my life and career to work for organizations with a noble purpose, whether the Peace Corps, or Penn State University, whose mission as a land grant institution is teaching, research, and service. Working with everyone at Behrend who share in striving for the common good is what I will miss the most.

What’s the secret of life?

Since, in Malaysia, I was a “guru,” I’ll recommend as a starting point in your quest — the “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”  (Please note that I didn’t say I was a good guru…)

Any other parting wisdom for us?

In Asian culture, keeping harmonious relationships within the community is often the top priority.  In America, we emphasize individualism.  I think that in a healthy community, there is a balance of both; freedom of individual expression, along with concern for others.

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Penn State announces Peace Corps Prep certificate program

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

Did you know that the Peace Corps, the international volunteer service organization, would not have come into being without college students?

“During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy made a late-night stop at the campus of the University of Michigan,” said Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics at Penn State Behrend. “He made an off-hand remark inquiring whether the college students there would be willing to serve in a developing country. It would have been a forgotten campaign speech, except that the students organized and sent a petition with hundreds of signatures asking for the opportunity to serve others and their country.”

Hall served after his undergraduate years, and his time in the corps remains a transformative life experience, so much so that forty years later, he regularly encourages Behrend students to consider joining, helps raise awareness of the organization on campus, and staffs a recruiting table at Behrend’s twice-yearly Career and Internship Fair.

“The Peace Corps is a great opportunity to learn about another culture, to develop one’s talents, and to be of service to people in a developing nation,” Hall said. “An example of the impact possible is Alejando Toledo, the former President of Peru, who said ‘I am one of sixteen brothers and sisters. Born in extreme, extreme poverty… I’m the first president of indigenous descent who had been democratically elected in 500 years in South America. To a large extent thanks to the Peace Corps.’”

“While none of my former students in Malaysia became a president,” Hall said, “I did help the children of subsistence farmers and fishermen become teachers and nurses who in turn contributed to education and health care in places where it was scarce.”

Hall is proof that the Peace Corps stays with you. A few years ago, he even returned to Borneo to catch up with some of his former students.

That’s why he’s excited about a new partnership between the Peace Corp and Penn State to offer a preparatory program for students interested in volunteering.

Peace Corps Prep is a certificate program for undergraduate students of any major. Students who participate in the program gain skills and experiences that make them attractive candidates for the corps or any form of international or service work. The inaugural cohort will begin this fall semester.

Accepted students will build their coursework around one of six strategic competencies that the Peace Corps seeks in its volunteers. The program requires students to complete a set number of field hours in their chosen competency area, take globally minded classes, show language competency, and engage in career-related activities.

Interested students are required to complete an online interest form by October 16, 2020 to be considered for the inaugural cohort. Program requirements, application information, and more can be found at https://studentsaffairs.psu.edu/career/peace-corps-prep.

While the certificate program does not guarantee acceptance in the Peace Corps, it will help to provide participants with a competitive advantage.

ABOUT THE PEACE CORPS

Peace Corps mission: to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Volunteers serve for twenty-seven months in areas such as health, education, environment, agriculture, community economic development, and youth in development.

Jonathan Hall and Wan Musa
Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics at Penn State Behrend, and a former colleague, Wan Musa, who taught with Hall in North Borneo forty years ago. Wan Musa

Get Lost in Space with Yahn Planetarium

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager at Penn State Behrend

In an uncertain world, it helps to keep your chin up. Way up. Tipped to the sky, in fact. There’s nothing like the vastness of the heavens above to inspire awe and put one’s existence on planet Earth in perspective: Just one tiny human on one small planet contemplating millions of planets and solar systems spinning tens of thousands of lightyears away.

When you really delve into it, space science is mind-blowing and, frankly, who among us couldn’t use a distraction these days? Yahn Planetarium at Penn State Behrend has just what you need, and you can find it online, for free.

“It’s been difficult for the planetarium during this time as we normally thrive on school groups and the public coming in to experience the immersive planetarium,” said Jim Gavio, planetarium director. “But, like many educational facilities, we have adapted to remotely teaching astronomy and space science.”

Gavio has been recording presentations and posting them online at behrend.psu.edu/yahnplanetarium. He is also doing monthly star talks, in which he guides viewers in looking at the current night sky in the Erie area, as well as occasional special presentations, such as one on SpaceX’s recent Demo-2 launch and one on the basics of using a telescope.

The planetarium is also offering virtual field trips, interactive group presentations led by offered by Gavio via Zoom.

“During the bulk of the group programming, I try to simulate what they would see in the planetarium,” he said. “I use an astronomy program that simulates the night sky here in Erie so that I can point out specific constellations and stars and planets that they would see in the sky that night.”

His largest virtual group so far was 130 middle school students this spring.

“The teacher sent me questions from the students in advance, which made for a smooth presentation, in which I could focus on some things they were learning at that time. The teacher told me that she, the parents, and the kids were thrilled to have the experience as it gave them a break from schoolwork and an event to look forward to.”

Speaking of looking forward, Gavio has been using the downtime at the planetarium to develop new programming and to do minor maintenance work on the facility.

“The planetarium has been going nonstop for six years, and we’ve had more than 46,000 visitors in that time, so the space is showing some wear,” Gavio said. “While we’d much rather have Yahn Planetarium open, closing it to visitors has given us time to do some repairs and improvements.”

If you need a good reason to get lost in the stars, Gavio has one for you: NASA will be launching another rover to Mars sometime during the launch window of July 20 to August 11.

“The rover will be looking for signs of microbial life on Mars,” he said. “Another really exciting aspect of the rover will be the small helicopter drone that it carries that will fly around on Mars. This is a first and will be very exciting to watch.”

Not into rovers? How about comets?

“During July and August, we also have Comet NEOWISE which looks like it will be pretty visible to people if they choose to look for it,” Gavio said.

He warns, though, that comets can be tricky.

“Sometimes we think they may be easy to see, then they fizzle out,” he said. “Comet NEOWISE won’t be as noticeable as Comet Hale-Bop was back in the late 1990s, but you should be able to see it with the naked-eye or better yet, with a simple pair of binoculars. In mid- to late-July, it can be seen low in the northwest after sunset. As we head into August, it will climb higher and further from sunset so that it will be in a darker sky. If you’ve never seen a comet, this is one of the best chances we’ve had in long time.”

So, get that chin waaaay up because there’s always something exciting going on in the skies above you. Get lost in space for a little while with Yahn Planetarium.

See Yahn Planetarium at Penn State Behrend videos and schedule a virtual tour at behrend.psu.edu/yahnplanetarium. For more information, contact Jim Gavio, planetarium director, at 814-898-7268 or jvg10@psu.edu.

Student’s discovery is measure of success

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

ethan fontana

Some of the world’s greatest scientific discoveries have been happy accidents. An experiment goes not quite as expected, and the scientist says something like, “Huh, that’s weird.”

For many, that moment comes after years, even a full lifetime, of work. For some, like Mechanical Engineering senior Ethan Fontana it came in the first year of college in a class outside of his major. (Huh, that’s weird.)

Fontana, a native of Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania, had passed college-level physics in high school thanks to a dual-enrollment AP course, but he needed a lab credit for the course to be accepted as a replacement for PHYS 211: Mechanics at Penn State.

He talked to Dr. Chuck Yeung, professor of physics, who helped Fontana craft an individual study course that would meet the college’s requirements. While working in the lab independently on an assignment involving a ticker tape timer, an apparatus used in introductory physics courses, Fontana noticed something odd.

“I was obtaining inaccurate and inconsistent values of gravity,” he said. “I approached Dr. Yeung about it. He was unable to find anything about the issue online, so he suggested we do a research study on it.”

“After rigorous hours in the lab, performing trial after trial, we finally concluded that an external friction force was present in the apparatus,” Fontana said. “Better yet, we were even able to calculate it with minimal uncertainty.”

Conclusion reached, Fontana worked with Yeung to produce a poster for the Sigma Xi Undergraduate Research Conference where they tied for first place in the Physics/Chemistry division.

“We were both sort of amazed because I was only a first-year student at that time,” Fontana said.

Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics, said the ticker tape timer has been used in introductory physics classes in high schools and college for decades.

“It is a useful pedagogical tool to introduce important concepts of motion, such as velocity and acceleration, to students,” he said. “I was astounded to find no articles in physics education journals about the results to expect or suggested best practices when using a ticker tape timer to measure motion.”

 

 

 

 

 

So the three collaborated on a paper, with Fontana as the lead author. It was published in the May issue of The Physics Teacher.

 

“I think the paper fills a gap in physics education literature, and will be a helpful resource, especially to new physics teachers,” Hall said. “Ethan is a remarkable student. It’s quite unusual for a student to take their first college physics lab and end up as the lead author of a peer-reviewed scientific paper.”

 

Fontana is looking forward to getting his Professional Engineering license and a job as a mechanical engineer in the Pittsburgh area after his graduation in May of 2021.

 

 

 

Summer School for the Preschool Set

Science Story Time continues remotely

By Heather Cass,

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend’s School of Science began offering free Science Story Time events to the Erie-area community a few years ago, pairing a storybook reading with a hands-on science lesson for preschool-age children.

The outreach program not only offered young children, accompanied by a parent or caregiver, the chance to visit campus and learn that science can be fun, but it also gave Behrend student volunteers the opportunity to share their passion with a new generation of learners.

The program, which was started by Tracy Halmi, associate teaching professor in chemistry, was instantly popular. Sessions have often filled in a matter of hours or a single day after registration opens.

So when the COVID-19 crisis forced the cancelation of all gatherings on campus this spring, Halmi and her student volunteers decided to take Science Story Time online.

“We have such a great turnout for our on-campus Science Story Time program that we did not want the kids to stop learning at home,” Halmi said. “We decided to use the storybooks previously used during our on-campus events as inspiration to find hands-on activities that can be easily completed at home.”

Kennedy Wittman, a senior majoring in Early Childhood and Elementary Education, has been hosting Science Story Time videos and posting to them online at behrend.psu.edu/storytime. A half dozen videos are already posted presenting fun experiments such as “lava lamp in a glass,” “baloon rocket,” and “three-ingredient slime!”

Wittman was referred to Halmi by Jodie Styers, associate teaching professor of mathematics education, who thought Wittman would be a good candidate to help Halmi facilitate the program.

Under Halmi’s guidance, Wittman takes the lead on lesson planning, which gives her valuable experience for her future career as an elementary school teacher.

“Every week, I look for ideas online or adapt experiments we have done at past preschool events and choose ones that can be done simply in the home without having to buy many, if any, materials,” said Wittman, who always tries the experiment in advance to be sure that it works and that she can easily demonstrate it on video.

“I have really enjoyed being involved in Science Story Time because it’s fun to interact with the kids,” Wittman said. “It is amazing to see their excitement and joy when they try an experiment or learn something new. While we can’t see that right now, I’m confident it’s still happening at home.”

Wittman said the experience has help build her confidence and boost her science knowledge.

“I have learned so much more about science myself, and I feel that I will be much more confident in teaching science to my future students.”

Halmi and Wittman plan to continue offering Science Story Time online throughout the summer, posting a new video about once a week.

Check out all the current Science Story Time videos here.

 

 

 

What’s it Like to Work in Health Care During a Pandemic? Bio Majors Share

Biology alumni, students share their experiences on the frontlines

By Heather Cass,

Publications Manger, Penn State Behrend

For several Penn State Behrend biology students and recent graduates, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a baptism by fire—calling on them to put their new skills to use helping to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and caring for those who have it.

We talked with some of those students and graduates to find out what it’s like working in health care during the pandemic.

Rachel Adams ’19 is a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT) at Dobler Hose in Girard, Pa.

Jessie Kibbe ’20 is a new graduate. She earned a degree in Biology in May and works as a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) at an Erie senior living facility.

Emily Jaskiewiecz1

Ellen Jaskiewicz ’19

Ellen Jaskiewicz ’19 is an EMT at EmergyCare and also a volunteer EMT for Brookside Fire Company in Harborcreek, Pa.

Rachel Sinnott ’19 is a patient care technician at UPMC Hamot Hospital in Erie and a volunteer EMT with the Brookside Fire Company in Harborcreek.

zillman2

James Zillman, junior Biology major

James Zillman is a junior majoring in Biology in the Pre-Health option. He is an emergency room technician at UPMC Hamot and a COVID-19 specimen collector at the UPMC collection center in Erie.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected how you do your work?

Jaskiewicz: The worst part now is having to wear a surgical mask all the time. It’s very difficult for our patients, who are often elderly, to hear us and nearly impossible to get a full assessment done enroute to the hospital. We all take precautions with every patient, of course, but EmergyCare now has designated COVID crews who are trained to transport patients who are positive for the virus.

Zillman: When I first started at the emergency room, it was fast-paced every single day with a lot of patients, and although there are still individuals in cardiac arrest or suffering traumas coming in, the ER has actually slowed down a lot. We are, however, ready to assist and we all have proper PPE (personal protective equipment) and follow the proper guidelines for limiting exposure.

Sinnott: I’ve always been very conscientious about wearing appropriate PPE for the situation I’m in, but I think more carefully about what I bring in and out of work. I no longer bring my purse or a reusable water bottle, and I’m more aware of things I touch regularly like my cell phone, door handles, elevator buttons, and such.

Many remain untouched by this virus. It is certainly a different experience for you. What’s it like being on the front lines?

Jaskiewicz: Our call volume is significantly lower than normal, which is good because it means that people are understanding the importance of staying home. I worry, though, that some people may be too afraid to go to the hospital for treatment now (for fear of the virus), but they should know that health care facilities are following all protocols to keep them safe, and that includes in ambulances.

Kibbe: Before the pandemic hit, it was already a bad year for influenza and pneumonia, which we have to be very careful about in senior facilities. The care center I work in was already taking significant measures to guard against spread of the flu, so the quarantine orders were something we were used to. One of the hardest things has actually been the constantly changing policies and protocols since the pandemic. Some of this is inevitable, as it’s based on new information about the virus and PPE supply availability. Despite the changes for us, we try hard to maintain a normal and optimistic atmosphere to avoid worrying our residents.

Zillman: I truly enjoy my job and helping others, but I do worry about my three-year-old brother who has respiratory issues. I try to limit my exposure to him, and I make sure to wear protective gear around every patient I encounter, whether they are suspected of having COVID-19 or not.

Sinnott: I find myself spending a lot more of my workday trying to keep patients company since they are no longer allowed to have visitors. I try to spend a little extra time talking to them, asking what they are watching on TV or looking at pictures of their family so that they feel more comfortable and have someone to talk to.

What drove home the seriousness of the situation for you?

Adams: In mid-March, I was on wheelchair transport and encountered my first severely at-risk patient. He was a recent organ transplant on immunosuppressants. As I helped transport him home, he told me how frightened he was about contracting COVID-19 because he did not think he would survive it. I cried all the way back to my post. I think about him a lot. I hope he is doing well.

Jaskiewicz: I transported an older gentleman who had spent 90 days in a hospital and then a rehab and was going to a nursing home where visitors are now restricted. He told me he had to say goodbye to his wife for a full two weeks, and they had spent every night together for the past forty years. It was beyond heartbreaking.

Kibbe: When some of the nursing staff gathered early on to discuss the ‘what ifs’ and make plans in case the virus hit our facility, it was sobering and forced me to confront and accept uncertainty.

Zillman: I was at the COVID-19 collection center, swabbing a patient who told me that we were all heroes and that he appreciated us. I understand that there is always risk when you’re on the front lines, but for some reason, his calling us heroes made me realize how serious the pandemic is.

Sinnott: The first week we restricted visitors was really tough. I had a young patient who had a major setback and another who refused surgery because she did not want to go through it alone. Later that week, I had a patient who was receiving end-of-life care and could not have his family there to be with him. It’s scary enough to be sick and in the hospital, but it’s even more frightening for patients when they are not able to have their families with them.

The pandemic is a scary situation to be thrown into as a young professional. How have you dealt with it?

Kibbe: I have not felt frightened. Concerned, sure, but not scared because I have faith in modern medicine and I know that we will find a way to combat the virus. I’ve worked as a CNA for three years, and though the uncertainty of this virus is disconcerting, I’m confident in my training and skills. When someone needs help, your training kicks in and you just do your job.

What’s giving you hope right now?

Kibbe: The people I work alongside. There’s no way for me to fully describe the measure of their compassion and dedication they give to our residents. In my three years here, I’ve seen firsthand the selflessness, sacrifice, and sense of responsibility they have, and that has only been amplified by the pandemic.

Jaskiewicz: Honestly, the free food. It’s nice to be appreciated as a health care employee.

Zillman: First, the people I work with; everyone has such a positive attitude. Also, how the public has responded to health care workers, cheering them on and thanking them. It’s gratifying and motivating.

Sinnott: My coworkers inspire me every day. They’re continuing to risk their own health to help others and they go above and beyond to put patients at ease.

Has this experience confirmed or helped focus your career choice?

Kibbe: I’m planning to attend physician assistant school and this pandemic has without question confirmed my choice to advance in my medical career.

Zillman: I’m planning to apply to medical school in June, and I could not be more motivated to become an ER doctor. I’ve spent more than 100 hours shadowing physicians in the ER before I began working there, and it has confirmed that I’m on the right path.

Sinnott: It has absolutely confirmed my career choice. While this is a challenging time to work in health care, it is also incredibly rewarding.

Parting words for those not on the front lines?

Jaskiewicz: Please do what is asked of you. Wear a mask, stay at home, limit contact with others. I realize it’s an inconvenience and may be financially detrimental to some, but your actions can and will affect others. You don’t see the look on the family’s faces when we transport their mother who is in cardiac arrest and they cannot follow us to be with her at the hospital. You don’t see the patients dying alone, unable to have the comfort of a loved one during their last moments. Honestly, I’d rather wear a mask for the rest of my life than let one patient suffer alone.

 

New Tech Tools Add Up for Future Math Teachers

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

The COVID-19 crisis this spring gave students in MTHED 427 Teaching Mathematics in Technology Intensive Environments an unexpectedly immersive educational experience. They, like every other math teacher in the tri-state area, were suddenly thrust into teaching (and learning how to teach) math remotely using a variety of technological tools.

To help with that transition, teacher organization and educational resource websites have been offering new professional development opportunities.

Recently, the students in MTHED 427, who are just a year or two away from being high school math teachers, were invited to participated in a virtual “unconference” centered around tools for teaching mathematics in an online environment. “21st Century Math: Engaging Online Students in Multi-Sensory Learning” was an all-day event offering various sessions that current and soon-to-be math teachers could attend virtually.

“As the title suggests, the ‘unconference’ is all about leveraging technology to teach mathematics in meaningful and engaging ways,” said Dr. Courtney Nagle, associate professor of math education. “It was an exciting opportunity for our students to be invited to attend.”

The students found it to be a valuable experience, not just because of the content covered, but also because they had the chance to interact with and learn from veteran mathematics teachers.

“There were a couple of hundred teachers in each of the sessions that I attended, and we got to interact at various points,” said Angela Dale, a junior dual majoring in Mathematics and Secondary Education in Mathematics. “In some sessions, we were sent to breakout rooms and given the chance to try different activities with the other teachers in that session. The interesting thing about that was that we were able to help one other with the software and explore a bit like students would do.”

Dale said one session piqued her interest in a new teaching tool.

“One of the sessions explored the role of music in the learning process,” Dale said. “I left the session wanting to know more about how they set up their platform and the topics the video covered. I definitely plan to look further into that concept.”

Taylor Montagna, a junior Secondary Education in Mathematics major, also attended the “unconference,” and learned a lot about the parental role in education.

“One of the most interesting sessions I attended was about parental un-involvement and how that can be addressed,” Montagna said. “I learned about ways I could handle that when I have my own classroom and students.”

Both Montagna and Dale think some of the online learning tools pressed into use during the COVID-19 crisis will remain a tool in the belts of high school math teachers.

“The activities we saw at the conference were very focused on promoting collaborative effort among students and making learning accessible for all students,” Dale said. “Some programs were games students could play at home to improve their math fluency, while others will help them continue to work with their peers to get a deeper understanding of the material that is being taught in class. I think teachers, and students, will continue to utilize these resources in the future.”

“I do believe this experience will help ‘normalize’ a level of online learning,” Montagna said. “I think teachers will likely incorporate more technology into their classrooms, not just in case of a future pandemic, but because some of these technological tools are a nice addition to traditional methods of teaching.”