Sheila Galt is a professor of applied electromagnetics. She studied at the department of Applied Electron Physics at Chalmers and got her doctoral degree in 1990 with the thesis "Optical fiber scattering and biological electromagnetic effects".
She remained at the department until 2001 when she joined the Photonics Laboratory at MC2. 17 years later, it is time to move on and test her wings at Communication and Learning in Science, where she formally belongs to the Division of Engineering Education Research (EER). In fact, she already started at her new address on 1 June.
"It feels just right since their activities correspond well with my own. I'm usually joking that I will do the same things I've always done, but with other colleagues to discuss educational ideas with. For parts of my work, it feels like a more logical home base", says Sheila.
Taking up educational research
She hopes to continue to work with much of what she has done so far, but exactly what it will look like is still unclear.
"I will drop some of the activities I've had at MC2, and start more educational research. Most of what I have taken care of at the Photonics Laboratory, I will have to let go. There will be changes. I've been teaching Laser Engineering and dealing with labs for quite a few years and developed new photonics related labs in a number of courses. It has been great fun to do", says Sheila.
Until recently, she was vice-head for the undergraduate education at MC2.
"It meant both strategic thinking – how we should improve the courses and how teachers can be provided with more chances to teach – and to make sure the courses are properly staffed, delivered according to our agreements, and that we take care of our commitments properly on a daily basis. Then it also involved being a member of Chalmers Joint Vice-Head Group, which works a bit more strategically. If you identify a need for a change in routines for how the undergraduate education is organized from a teacher perspective, then it is the vice-head's task to accomplish that."
The assignment as vice-head for the undergraduate education has been taken over by Per Rudquist.
Sheila Galt is perhaps best known for her role in school outreach programs, where she worked extensively with The International Science Festival in Gothenburg, the Wallenberg Physics Prize (connected with the International Physics Olympiad) and other activities aimed at children and adolescents. Her laser shows have almost become an institution, and the Newton performances at the house of William Chalmers became very noteworthy. The other year she contributed to a children’s program on the radio. Many of these popular activities have unfortunately ceased.
Nor is the much-appreciated activity "Nanoscientist for a day", which Sheila ran along with Per Lundgren during the Science Festival, remaining.
"I think that these are activities that should have been continued. We will see how it will be in the future."
Laser shows at Universeum
Instead, Sheila gets a chance to continue her outreach work with a 60% assignment at the science centre Universeum. There, among other things, she has continued to offer her laser shows.
"I have shared responsibility for activities offered for the public at the so-called “Teknoteket”. This is a technology-oriented makerspace where we have specific themes that are replaced approximately every two months. Here we need to have long-term planning and be able to develop new ideas and to freshen up old ones", she says.
The challenge has been to find activities that work for a large range of ages, from preschoolers and upwards. Everyone is welcome to participate and you do not have to book time in advance.
"My aim has been to do more than just raise interest in technology. It is very important that we help people to enjoy technology, science and math. You should be able to have fun with technology while learning something."
In the theme called "Värmeverket", visitors were able to explore the heat of the human body and of the planet Earth, including studying the effects of exercise and the greenhouse effect. Visitors also had to think about how they themselves could contribute to the solution of the global warming problem.
"Thinking about how technology is used is a specially important issue for me, as well as linking sustainability ideas to the subject. I'm quite proud of our success."
The assignment at Universeum ends at the end of the year, but Sheila would like to continue if possible.
The recognition meant the most
During the period 2009-2016, Sheila Galt was the leader of Chalmers gymnasiecentrum where she was a driving force, but the centre no longer remains in its original form. It was an operation that was later awarded, 2014.
"It started with Bo Håkansson's award "Technician of the year" in 2013. The prize included a part that he could donate for some good purpose and then he chose us."
But the money was not the most important aspect for Sheila. The recognition meant more.
"To get an acknowledgement that my struggles have been worth the effort," she says.
Together with Per Lundgren, Sheila Galt was also honored with Sigurd Andersson's scholarship for best peer effort in 2014, something that also pleased her a lot.
Born in Canada
Sheila Galt was born in 1956 in Kingston, Canada. She laughs at saying that she never really grew up.
"I have no memories at all from Kingston. We moved to England when I was one year, and from there to Penticton, located in the southernmost part of the Canadian province of British Columbia."
Dad was a radio astronomer and the Penticton conditions were ideal for that type of work. The town is located near a valley with mountains on all sides, pretty much like a bowl. There you could work in protection from electromagnetic interference.
In 1972, the family moved to Sweden.
"My father wanted to borrow instruments from Onsala Space Observatory, and brought the whole family. We studied Swedish intensively and I started at the music program at the high school Hvitfeldtska. That year became a turning point in my life. I had been aiming at having music as my profession, but after a year I realized that I didn't want to fight so hard, although I still enjoyed music a lot, and still do. So I decided to engage more in physics."
Her technology interest comes from her father.
"He was always coming up with new nerdy fun. He played a lot with us. Among other things, we remodeled old bikes. Suddenly a bicycle had to be pedaled backwards to move forward. We often went with dad to the observatory and played there. Sometimes I got my own problems to solve, such as finding bugs in his software. Dad used to buy kits for electronics and taught us to build our own music amplifier and our own oscilloscope. We had new projects all the time", recalls Sheila.
Met the husband
At Hvitfeldtska she also met her future life companion:
"Anders was the tallest person in class and I was the shortest. He eventually became my husband!"
The family lives in a house in Sävedalen with two sons aged 25 and 19.
"Our youngest son went to the same music program as I did at Hvitfeldtska and met his girlfriend there!"
Sheila has played the piano since she was a small child. During her school years, she also received a lot of prizes for her talent. She says modestly that she got awarded because she signed up for all the competitions she could find...
"But I often mention that I learned to read music even before I could read ordinary text."
There is also room for some spare time in her life. She enjoys gardening and choral singing.
"I love to grow vegetables in the garden, preferably those that are cheap to buy and easy to grow. I also sing in the little choir Corona. I usually say it’s a group of old, left-over Chalmers choristers, because almost all members have a Chalmers background. There are also a lot of other things I like to do but don’t take time for. When I retire, I’ll resume my interests in pottery and sewing."
"Like ingenious stuff"
She has several driving forces, but at the bottom of it all is a basic interest in technology, which she describes as "bubbly".
"I like ingenious stuff. My mom usually jokes with me and says I'm like Don Quixote; if I see a windmill, I'll go off and try to fight it! I’m drawn to tackling what I see as important problems, even though they might seem almost irresolvable, such as teaching technology students to apply ethical thinking. I took on the challenge in the Fundamentals of Photonics course, and I actually believe we succeeded!"
Other major driving forces are curiosity and an interest in gender equality and sustainability.
"It must be fair in terms of a sustainable world. Much of what the UN writes in its sustainability goals, I have tried to push for in my own small context."
Long-term student recruitment
In her outreach activities, Sheila Galt has worked persistently with long-term student recruitment. She has seen the twinkle in the eyes of the children when the penny dropped. She has also received a hug now and then as thanks afterwards.
But how many future Chalmers students she has inspired and ultimately attracted to the university, she will never know:
"I have no idea. No one has ever come and let me know about this. I have asked myself many times if it could be followed up in some way, but I have come to the conclusion that it is not feasible. The efforts are so small for each child and it is impossible to say if we managed to influence anyone in just one hour's time. It's probably much more effective if you can influence their teachers. We need to provide inspiration and tools for the teachers, and we try to do this, among other things, in the Master's program Learning and Leadership, where the students become both engineers and high school teachers."
In this program, Sheila teaches and examines the practicum courses, which involve the students practice-teaching at local high schools. She will continue to do that.
Many small seeds and steps
You can certainly say that Sheila Galt has been planting small seeds in children and adolescents, although the results can’t easily be measured.
"Of course, you do not know how many other people in these children’s environment are nudging and encouraging their technical interests. They make a bigger difference, and it is not certain that my little contribution will be a part of the choices these young people will make in their lives. But it's nice to imagine it could be so", she says.
On 15 June, Sheila Galt was thanked by colleagues and friends with coffee and cake.
"I want to encourage all the small steps which are continuously being taken at Chalmers in order for the educational programs to keep growing better and better. It feels great to be part of that work and see how everyone works together to make it happen. I want to continue to support that", she concludes.
Text and photo: Michael Nystås