Sigma XI Scientific Research Honor Society Selects Wellesley’s Robbin Chapman as Distinguished Lecturer

September 28, 2017
Robbin Chapman

“I felt stunned, and sort of humbled,” said Robbin Chapman, when she learned that she’d been nominated for the Sigma Xi Excellence Award of Distinguished Lecturers honor. Chapman, who is Wellesley’s associate provost and academic director of diversity and inclusion as well as a lecturer in education, still doesn’t know who nominated her; however, she said, the selection committee described her as having “a way of framing often complex ideas and concepts such that they are very accessible to a broad range of people.”

Sigma Xi is an international honor society of science and engineering whose members’ research spans the disciplines of science and technology. Founded more than 125 years ago, Sigma Xi has chapters at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The number of individuals selected each year varies.

During Chapman’s two-year term as a distinguished lecturer, which begins July 1, 2018, she anticipates receiving one or two invitations to speak over the course of an academic year. She said Sigma Xi makes arrangements for speakers to visit the campuses where it has chapters and engage with the community. “I may be invited to address one of several topics that I submitted as part of the selection process,” she said. Those topics include the synergy of STEM and non-STEM disciplines; implications for diversity and equity for learning technologies and learning; and supporting student success in exclusive excellence STEM environments.

The Sigma Xi Committee on Lectureships is tasked with maintaining a balanced college of speakers. Each year, the committee selects lecturers who communicate their insights and excitement to a broad range of scholars, and to the community at large. Each year thousands of Sigma Xi members, students and the public have an opportunity to hear exceptional talks, as well as ask questions of experts. 

Chapman, who has been at Wellesley since 2011, provides strategic leadership and vision for the College’s diversity and inclusion programs, and academic and faculty excellence initiatives.

As a lecturer in the education department, she teaches a design-based course that merges education and computer science theory, to encourage students to reimagine how learning flourishes in partnership with digital technologies.

Chapman earned her S.M. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, where she conducted research at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the MIT Media Laboratory. Her research interests include design and use of computational tools for learning in public spaces and examining equity issues as they relate to learning technologies and culturally responsive pedagogy.

She is also an accomplished pianist—one who sees no difference between the experience of playing piano and computational thinking. She told Daily Shot writers, “One of my talks is about how the sciences and the arts are actually two sides of the same coin. For instance, when I sight-read music, I can’t separate that mental process from engaging pattern recognition algorithms or other collections of patterns. They feel the same in my head. We have artificially built cubby-holes for these things to go into…and I think it limits severely what both can do.”

Sigma Xi’s mission is to use science to improve the human condition and to promote the public’s understanding of science. Chapman said that while she’s certainly interested in promoting people’s understanding of science, she also recognizes the need to encourage scientists to take on the role of leaders in their communities and to communicate about science with the public.

“The public should be in conversation with scientists and know what they do,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to ensure that people at large understand what we do and why we do it. And whether you are the head of the National Science Foundation, a postdoc, or even a graduate student, there are things you can do to bring the public to science.”

The result, she said, would be that people might “fall in love with science, and hopefully pursue further exploration at school, through family activities and sharing their newfound connections to science with others.”

The Sigma Xi Lectureship Program is supported by members, with additional support from partnering organizations such as the American Meteorological Society.