Haddie McLean earns Bassam Z. Shakhashiri Public Science Engagement Award

This post is adapted from one originally published by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research

profile photo of Haddie McLean
Haddie McLean

Haddie McLean, who is inspiring the next generation of scientists with The Wonders of Physics, has received the Bassam Z. Shakhashiri Public Science Engagement Award.

The award, in its second year, recognizes a UW–Madison faculty and academic staff member (one awarded to each category) who has shown excellence in engaging the public in their work in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). Botany professor Simon Gilroy won in the faculty category.

McLean is a UW–Madison alumna with a Bachelor of Science in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. She spent over 20 years working as a meteorologist at WISC-TV in Madison, where she honed her science communication skills in front of the camera every day and earned the trust of the public. She joined the Department of Physics in August 2021 as an Outreach Specialist to present The Wonders of Physics traveling show to schools and community groups around the state.

In October 2023, she was promoted to Outreach Program Manager. In her new role, McLean oversees all aspects of The Wonders of Physics outreach program, including the large annual show on campus every February, the traveling show, and securing funding to train undergraduates in the best practices of science communication to broad audiences and expand the program.

McLean’s nominator explains, “Importantly, she shares the science behind the demos — it’s not magic, it’s physics! One of the biggest improvements Haddie has made to The Wonders of Physics is the incorporation of leave-behind kits. These kits, developed with a colleague who is a former high school physics teacher, provide inquiry-based activities related to the show, which help reinforce concepts and allow for more active learning.”

McLean is constantly developing new demos and builds most of them herself with inexpensive items, proving that science outreach doesn’t have to be pricey to be effective. She also collaborates with department outreach staff to create new exhibits for the Ingersoll Physics Museum.

a woman on the left of a stage and Bucky Badger on the right look toward the audience, pictured to the left of the photo, to recruit volunteers
Haddie McLean and Bucky Badger hype up the crowd during the 40th year of The Wonders of Physics. (Photo by Taylor Wolfram / UW–Madison)

For the glass-themed 2022 WiSciFest, McLean created a “walking on broken glass” demo for a live performance on State Street. She broke and tumbled dozens of glass bottles, then filled a plastic tub with them. She first showed that the glass was sharp enough to pop a balloon, then she stepped into the tub. In a glass walk, the weight of your body is spread out over lots of pieces, which have the freedom to move. When you step on a single sliver of glass, your weight is concentrated over that one sharp point.

The audience for the Wonders of Physics shows is, as McLean says, “from pre-K to grey.” She adjusts the contents of her shows for any age and any level of familiarity with physics. She does this by relating physics to real-life concepts, showing her audience how they use physics every day and making sure that everyone knows they, too, can be a scientist if they observe and ask questions.

In addition to performance-based shows, Haddie has partnered with 4-H, UW Extension and many statewide partners to reach under-resourced communities across the state. In two years, she has visited over one-third of Wisconsin counties.

She is a strong partner of the PEOPLE program, developing summer courses for PEOPLE Summer University and traveling to Milwaukee public schools that serve PEOPLE students.

“By meeting students where they are,” her nominator says, “Haddie shows anyone that they, too, can be a physicist.”

The award is named for Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, emeritus professor of chemistry and the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea, in honor of his “Science is Fun” philosophy and long-term commitment to science education and public engagement. Shakhashiri joined the UW faculty in September of 1970 and retired in September 2021.

“Science and society have what is essentially a social contract that enables great intellectual achievements but comes with mutual expectations of benefiting the human condition and protecting our Planet,” says Shakhashiri.

The Bassam Z. Shakhashiri Public Science Engagement Award is supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the Morgridge Institute for Research and UW–Madison’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.