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Featured Fermilab Staff Member: Laura Mengel

Laura, you've had many experiences with the Computing Division and Education Office to share with educators. Would you please talk first about your position with the Fermilab Computing Division. What do you do in that position?

I am a software programmer in the Online Systems Department in the Data Acquisitions Software group. I write software for the fixed-target experiments. The experimenters need a Graphical User Interface for monitoring some of their run control statistics-how full are the tapes of data, how fast the events are coming. They need to see this information in bar charts and graphs-status displays like that. Another graphical interface I worked on for Online Systems is for run control. This makes it easier for experimenters to start a run, stop a run, pause it, stop it, resume it and send different messages to different components of the run control system. There are 8-10 experiments and the people working on these experiments have different needs. The challenge is to create an interface or tool so that each experiment can customize the interface to fit their needs.

What did you do before you came to Fermilab?

I was at Phillips Research Labs in New York. One of the projects I worked on there involved Compact Disk Interactive, CD-I for short. They had already developed the product and since I was in the research lab, I was looking toward the future as to what directions we could take this product. The data rate for CD-I was similar to the data rate the phone company was able to transmit over the phone wires. We decided to start doing some networking of CD-Is. If you have disks at one or both ends of the phone line, you could do educational things and all sorts of interesting applications. CD-I was the best thing I'd seen for education at that point because it was a CD-ROM, but it was more interactive. You were able to choose what parts of the program you would go into. Basically it was hypertext, and I wanted to see it move in the direction of developing networked hypertext applications for education ­p; Sound familiar? Phillips hadn't really been targeting it toward the education market yet, so I made a push for it. I said, "Hey, this would be a great product for the education. Let's take it into some schools and see what they think." So, I talked to a few teachers in our district and found out that they were about to take their students on a field trip to the Smithsonian Museum. Since Philips had a Smithsonian CD-I disk, I brought over the disk so it could be used as a tool for the teachers' regularly scheduled curriculum. The students were able to preview the museum exhibits and get more background information on the ones they were interested in. I had originally intended to work with only the 2nd and 3rd period students. But during lunch, the 4th and 5th period teachers said they had heard about the disks and their students wanted to use them too. When the time for the field trip came, the students were very excited and knew which exhibits they should be sure to see. The teachers saw how prepared the students were. By using the disks, the students were able to focus on the interconnections between the museum pieces, e.g., how pieces from the same period were related and how similar pieces from different periods were related.

When I began to see the Web in 1991 or 1992, I thought, "Wow! this is it - this is what I wanted." (Interviewer) So you saw the connection between the hypertext of CD-I and what the Web was moving toward by using Mosaic and other browsers.

The Computing Division has been very generous with your time for education programs and I know you personally volunteer a good deal of your own time as well; please describe your involvement with the Education Office and what lead you to become involved.

Yes, the Computing Division has been very generous.

I actually have an Education degree with a teaching certificate and a computer science degree. I've been interested all along in how they relate to one another. Now that has become a recognized field.

I started getting involved with the Education Center after I saw the Web. As soon as it became available on the Mac, I called to make an appointment with the Education Office staff to show them what was available. This to me was even better than CD-I. It was still too expensive for people to produce their own CD-I disks and that is crucial. With the Web students can be producers of information ­p; students can explore, research, collaborate and publish. This is an even better use of technology.

I made a set of prototype Web pages to show how the Education Center could use the Web: why it was important and what might be done in terms of teachers, students and staff. They were very interested. So I started working in my spare time to create some programs, especially in terms of professional development for teachers. At this point Marge Bardeen, Kris Ciesemier, Susan Dahl and Liz Quigg and I started collaborating on an 80 hour program to build a cadre of lead teachers to affect as many school districts around us as possible. The plan was to start the program as early as we could, so we'd have leaders at just about the time they'd be needed in their districts. After coming uyp with a more concrete proposal, we persuaded the Computing Division to donate a day a week of my time to the program. We began making Web pages (http://www-ed.fnal.gov/linc/linc_home.html) so that people who were not in our physical locality could still share our resources. We were then fortunate enough to receive a $135,00 Science Literacy grant from the Illinois State Board of Education in order to bring the program (LInC) into fruition.

I am so thrilled with the way the LInC program has been going. The course focuses on using the Internet as a tool to promote more "engaged learning" in the classroom - learning where students work on projects that have them investigating, collaborating on, and publishing their ideas about real-world problems. We have a wonderful group of partiipants and an excellent group of lead instructors who also have contributed a great deal of their time and ideas to the program. I am very happy to be working with Kris, Liz, Susan, Marge and our lead instructors. The joint effort has been wonderful and extremely productive.

As you were growing up, how did you feel about mathematics and science?

I just loved math from an early age. I would see numbers and I would try to figure out the patterns. Even in things like jacks or card games, I was intrigued by the symmetries and wanted to understand all the permutations. I think a lot of it came from the fact that my father loved numbers and he thought of it as a game. His enthusiasm rubbed off on me and it never entered my mind that math was something to be afraid of. It was very natural. My father's first love is baseball and he is a couch manager. He is very good. He looks at all the statistics and decides what a manager should do. In "real time" he is a political science professor. So instead of analyzing baseball stats, he analyses numbers from election polls. Either way the numbers tell you a lot!

What do you remember about your science and mathematics experiences in elementary school . . . and high school?

When I was young I always said I wanted to be a Scientist. I was encouraged to be interested in math and science and really anything! I had a lot of support in all areas in elementary school. I was able to work at my own pace and moved through math very quickly. High school was even better. I took as much math and science as I could. I was one of those students who was always asking "Why."

Describe your undergraduate years. . .

I started to major in computer science, and frankly I was discouraged. Unfortunately, many schools have a weed-out policy and when they should be encouraging more people to go into technology. You hear a lot of "look to the left, look to the right - two of you won't be here a year from now." Sometimes colleges will get a perfectly intelligent person who simply did not have the computer exposure that others did. Then they are turning away perfectly good material.

But I did want a teaching certificate too and there was no option for a computer science teaching major or minor at that time. So my undergraduate degree is from University of Michigan's School of Education with a major in math and minor in psychology. My MS degree is from Columbia University in Computer Science. So I have all of my areas of interests represented. These interests all come together in the task of communicating technical information to a wide range of people, whether they be technical or nontechnical. This is very consistent with developing user interfaces which need to communicate information to people that may be less technical or may just be coming from a different point of view.

Would you share with us some of your hobbies?

My mother is a dance teacher and is very enthusiastic about it. Moving is a wonderful form of expression; it's excellent for physical conditioning too. I started by tagging along to my mother's classes, then taking them, then assisting, and then teaching dance full time over the summers from10th grade through college.
I studied dance further when I was in New York, taking advantage of some terrific modern dance schools there ­p; the Alvin Ailey School of Dance and the Martha Graham School of Dance.

What does your future hold?

I would like to emphasize and to work in the area of helping educators make full use of technology as a tool to improve teaching and learning. I think there is a lot of potential here to improve students' abilities and interests in many fields including math and science where we need more people to have interest.

What advise would you give students ?

I'd advise people to become comfortable with technology and excited about computers because computers are used as a tool everywhere. As soon as people get over the threshold of the unknown or prior fear they can enjoy computers--they're fun and they help you do things faster. They're useful across almost the whole spectrum of jobs these days.
To students I'd say really take advantage of your education and the time that you are allowed to just concentrate on learning as opposed to having to work and go to school. It is a gift to be able to just concentrate on learning.