TALLAHASSEE, Fla — It's one of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory's rites of spring – an uneasy flock of middle-school students huddled in the front lobby, clutching their backpacks, marshaled into the lobby elevator by a slight woman with a brown bob.
The woman isn't leading a tour; she's leading a miniature work force of her own making, a partnership in its 15th year that allows middle-school students almost unheard-of access to high-level scientific research. Her name is Joan Crow.
Crow, a longtime teacher at the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), is retiring at the end of this school year, and this group of students will be her last. Crow is the widow of Magnet Lab founding Director Jack Crow, and their twin goals of research and education helped to cement the lab's educational reach in the region.
Each year as part of the Magnet Lab Middle School Mentorship program, Crow selects students from the SAS gifted program and works with Magnet Lab K-12 Outreach Coordinator Carlos Villa to match the students with Magnet Lab scientists willing to take them on. The scientist and the student then work together, while Crow takes care of transportation and tracks each student's progress.
"This is not just some little side project," said Villa. "This is usually productive research that gives students an understanding of what the real scientific process is. They get to understand that results don't always match the hypothesis, that sometimes your equipment will break, that what you find can be unexpected and exciting."
On Tuesday, May 11, Crow's last group of middle-school students presented the results of their research experience at the Magnet Lab in front of their teacher, parents, Magnet Lab mentors and friends, far more confident than when they first arrive 10 weeks prior.
Reached on the phone later that week, Crow was busy packing her bags for her next adventure, a cross-country odyssey with her fiancé.
"I've had wonderful letters from the kids this week," she said. "Some of them said this program was the first time they felt science was something they could really grab a hold of and do. Those letters have really made me feel like I made a difference."
Crow has a long track record of science education in Tallahassee. She's worked with Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, the Mary Brogan Museum and just about any other Tallahassee organization with a shared science mission in her 20 years of science education. Over the years, students have seen everything from a recovering heart-attack patient to the business end of an electron microscope.
Pat Dixon is the director of the Magnet Lab's Center for Integrating Research and Learning. She's quick to point out that Crow's reach extends far beyond the students she introduced to the mentoring program.
"There are a lot of teachers in this community who are just devastated that she's retiring, and I bet she doesn't even realize how many people are saying her name these days," said Dixon. "She's always available to new teachers and teachers who haven't gotten in to the classroom yet and who want to learn more about teaching science. She shares everything she knows. She has developed some remarkable things for kids to do in science."
The Magnet Lab and SAS presented Crow with mementos in honor of her many years of service to the education community.
"I feel very sad leaving," Crow said, "but it's time to move on. I went to work every day smiling- how many people can truly say that?"