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Lokvani talks to Ioannis Miaoulis, President, Museum Of Science

Ranjani Saigal

Dr. Ioannis Miaoulis, former Dean of the School of Engineering and assistant provost at Tufts University took up the position of the President of Museum of Science in January, 2003. Miaoulis replaced David Ellis who has been credited with strengthening the institution financially while championing community outreach. In the very short span of five months, Miaoulis has already done a lot to advance his goal of making the museum a leader in technology education.

Miaoulis, a native of Athens, Greece, came to America to study engineering at Tufts University. He has a master's degree in economics and a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. During his 15-year tenure at Tufts University, he brought an offbeat and creative approach to education and research. His research on butterflies led to a discovery that helped scientist structure wafer thin layers of silicon on computer chips to prevent the chips from melting during high-temperature production process. His life’s mission is to make all people in America technologically literate. He established the Center for Engineering Outreach at Tufts University that has done tremendous amount of work to make engineering accessible to K-12 students particularly to middle and high school girls. He is also responsible for introducing the engineering component into the Massachusetts K-12 curriculum.

Seated in his beautiful office overlooking the harbor, Miaoulis talked to Lokvani about his life and his vision for the Museum of Science.

Lokvani: Why do you think it is important to make people technologically literate?

Miaoulis: Technology is an integral part of people’s lives. Technological literacy will allow them to make more informed decisions on the products they use, which affect their life, so much. While science is an essential part of the K-12 curriculum there has been traditionally very little emphasis placed on technology. I think it is essential to have technology as the part of the curriculum. Most children know a lot about how volcanoes happen but very few know how cars work. How often do we sit in a volcano as opposed to the car? In the US, even politics is tied to technology. As we vote we should be better informed.

Lokvani: Do you believe there is gender bias in the field of technology education? If so, do you think it should be addressed?

Miaoulis: The gender bias very much exists. It is a well-documented fact that teachers often encourage boys in technology areas since they feel that boys are more likely to be interested in technology. Then there is the issue of mentorship. There are not enough women who can serve as mentors to girls. Even at the museum we often see dad explain the exhibit to the children while moms hold the overcoats. We call it the ‘coat syndrome.’

I firmly believe it needs to be addressed. I think if women get interested in technology they will have better career opportunities. Women often make many important decisions in the family especially when it comes to buying goods. Since the purchase often involve technology it is important that they understand it.

Lokvani: Could you tell us about your vision for the museum?

Miaoulis: We want to make this the best museum in the world. We would like to make it a place where students can come to learn about science and technology. We would like to increase the hands-on components so that we can have more ‘learning by doing’. We plan to have a part of the center for engineering outreach housed at the museum so that they can easily disseminate all their educational efforts to a large audience. As part of research, studying the approach of the children to the various exhibits will help us understand how people learn. We plan to have partnerships with schools so that they can use us as a resource.

We hope to have partnerships with universities so that they can use us as a place for disseminating information about their cutting edge research. We are planning to do more to attract adults to the museum. We will have technology showcase where companies can present new and innovative products before they hit the market. We will have forums where adults can discuss topics of interest. There are lecture series and courses presented which offer excellent opportunities for continuing education. We will design exhibits that link disciplines such as science and art. Our website is going to become much more interactive.

Lokvani: What is the best way for people to visit the museum?

Miaoulis: People often bring their children and rush through the museum, which is not very useful. We recommend getting a yearly membership. This will enable you to come often and focus on certain exhibits during a visit. The focus of a visit can be something that the child has been working in their science class in school. The more time you spend with an exhibit, the more you can learn from it. Adults have several opportunities to have a fun time at the museum as well. My first date with my wife was to a laser show at the museum.

Lokvani: What can parents do to keep their children interested in technology and encourage them to take up careers in technology?

Miaoulis: Make technology fun for the kids. I love to cook and talking about heat transfer in food preparation was exciting in my gourmet engineering class. Come to the museum for it is a fun way to learn about technology.

Lokvani: Just as the MFA is focusing on Asian art has the Museum of Science ever thought about focusing on the contributions of South Asians to science?

Miaoulis: Science is completely race-blind. We just had a wonderful exhibit on Egypt in the museum. If there is an exhibit focusing on South Asian contribution to science we would certainly look into featuring it. The goal of this museum is to make science interactive and fun. If there is an exhibit that can bring alive the history of science from South Asia, that would be a good thing to feature.

Lokvani: You are an immigrant and yet you do not seem to have experienced the proverbial “Glass-Ceiling”. What is the secret of your success?

Miaoulis: I think I am very focused on what I want to achieve and I work hard to implement what I want. I have always done things that are fun for me to do. I think this has helped me get to where I am today.

Lokvani: What are you plans for your own career?

Mioulis: This is my dream job. Here I have the opportunity of focusing on technology to a large population while having the time of my life. I think I will be here forever.

Lokvani: How do you manage to find time for your family despite a busy life here?

Miaoulis: My work is always 24 x 7. But since it is so much fun for me I never feel like I am really working. It is just part of my life. I do not have special times for work and family. It is all part of a whole and it works very well.

Lokvani: Any final words for our readers?

Miaoulis: I encourage all to come to the museum. There is a lot for everyone here. Use this as a resource. Technology innovators from companies and universities can use this as a place to disseminate information. As we go forth, there is a lot of exciting things that will be happening at the museum. Check out our website at www.mos.org to learn about us.

Lokvani: Thanks so much for your time.

Miaoulis: My pleasure.

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Miaoulis, former dean of the Tufts University School of Engineering, believes in learning by doing. Here, he’s in the Museum’s Sun Lab learning about plant transpiration. Photo credit: ©Andrew Brilliant/www.brilliantpictures.com

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