Dr. Ken Coles

Ken Coles, associate professor in the Department of Geoscience, has passion that can inspire any student on campus to want to learn more about science. Coles describes how he gets non-science majors interested in the field: “The best teachers that I had—the ones who inspired me, and some of them were very productive research scientists, but they were good teachers because they got excited about what they did. They would take us outdoors—to see rocks for example and jump up and down and say how exciting they were! They were always willing to talk to you about what you needed to do to get through school. And so I try to take a page from their book—in terms of my job to push students to do things they would not do on their own but are capable of doing.”

Coles remarks that it is a triumph when some of his non-science majors come to him and explain that they were only taking his course to meet their general education requirement, but then tell him that they became more interested in his field than they had originally planned. Coles is so excited about his field that students are often swept up in his passion and take further courses in science. When Coles gets students that say they are not very good at science he responds, “‘Well, that doesn't matter. Let's look at this'—and if you show them it's interesting and exciting, then they will end up putting in the work and learning more than they thought they would.”

Not only does he strive to get his students turned on to science, but he also engages the local Pennsylvania community. You can catch Coles speaking at the IUP Planetarium Public Shows about four times a year in Weyandt Hall. The planetarium shows are always related to something relevant in science, like the solar eclipse that occurred during the summer of 2017 over much of the United States. He does most of the presenting and show design, but his students have also gotten creative with the shows. Every other year a group of students from his Stellar Astronomy course learn to operate the planetarium and design and give shows. Past shows have included topics like “The Dark of the Moon” and “The Greatest Spectacles: Hubble Telescope.”

Coles has a vast line-up of credentials, teaching experience, and honors. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in geology from the California Institute of Technology and a PhD in geology from Columbia University. He also has an Indiana State Teaching Certificate in general and elementary school science in grades 1-8 and a Massachusetts First Year Teaching License in earth science for grades 8-12. At the beginning of his career he worked at Purdue University for nine years as an outreach coordinator in the School of Science to work with teachers and students around the state of Indiana. When Coles later moved on to K-12 teaching, he already had a repertoire of science lessons from his years of outreach. Some of his positions included teaching third grade on the Navajo reservation; first, seventh, and eighth grade in the state of Indiana; and high school tenth grade in Massachusetts. Coles was invited to IUP to initially run the Earth and Space Science education program. Currently, he primarily teaches astronomy courses. Coles was grateful to be nominated for one of the Teaching Excellence Awards for expository instruction at IUP in his fourth year of teaching. He also received a service award from the Kopchick College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics for his service with the IUP Planetarium public shows.

One of the fun activities Coles uses to get his students more involved in science is to do things that our great-grandparents used to do such, as understanding the motions of the sky. Coles remarks about the current reality that people are not outdoors at night, and cities and skies are oftentimes thoroughly illuminated at night. Students are often not familiar with where the moon is and how the phases of the moon work and, at large, how the sky moves. Coles uses the planetarium to help his students learn about how the sky moves and how to make predictions, which is always exciting for his students.

“I say make a prediction—I challenge you to show on there [a small model of the sky]—with an arrow—where the star will be three hours later. They work in pairs and debate about it—make a mark—and then I move the sky—and everyone is always real quiet because they want to see where their star's going to go! I can't make it easy. It is not necessarily easy for people who don't have a science background, but is my job to make astronomy interesting. People are interested in it to begin with and if you are careful about what you do you will not kill that interest,” remarked Coles.

Written by: Marie T. Webb

Videography: Tryone B. Jones