Professor of Natural Resources and the Environment
College of Life Sciences and Agriculture
"From my very first teaching job, I recognized that it was really important to try to engage the public in the process of doing science."
A form letter launched Barry Rock’s long commitment to public outreach. Newly arrived at UNH in 1987 from a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) laboratory, Rock was moved by a letter from a science teacher at Concord High School. The teacher, Phil Browne, had written to some 400 NASA scientists asking for their help in polishing the space agency’s image at Concord High, which had just lost beloved social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe in the Challenger disaster. Rock met with Browne, and within a few years they launched Forest Watch.
Forest Watch draws on Rock’s research as a botanist. Using a spectrophotometer, a tool that measures color reflected from a surface, young scientists monitor the health of white pines. “The white pine has a spectral fingerprint that tells us how damaged it is,” says Rock. And because white pines are extremely sensitive to ground-level ozone—smog—the common conifer is an excellent indicator of air quality.
Since Forest Watch began in 1991, the program has reached students and their teachers in more than 350 elementary, middle, and high schools in all New England states. Rock calls Forest Watch a win-win-win: students learn about science by doing something important, teachers are empowered to connect field science to classroom learning, and Rock gets a wealth of otherwise unavailable data. “How good can it get?” he quips.
Another win? With Forest Watch and other UNH outreach programs he’s launched, including Watershed Watch and the environmental module in Project SMART, Rock has nurtured future scientists. “It’s amazing what these students do... once they get a taste for the fun of science,” he says.
Danielle Haddad ’10, an environmental science major from Londonderry who participated in Forest Watch as a high school junior, is one of them. Haddad has worked in Rock’s lab and plans to stay at UNH, ultimately working toward a PhD and a job as a professor. “Forest Watch helped introduce me to the field of environmental science, which I fell in love with,” she says.
As subjects like climate change and stem cell research make science an increasingly polarizing issue, Rock remains steady in his commitment to engaging a wide public on what science is—and isn’t. “Science is so much more than the answer at the back of the book,” he says. “It’s detective work. You’re trying to find answers but in the process you’re finding 20 more questions.”