On the Shoulders of Giants

by Mark Udry

Lilian Jordan Inspires Her Students to Reach for the Stars

When most of us venture outdoors at night, we take a quick glance up toward the night sky, mostly to see what the weather is like, if we bother to look up at all. Professor Lilian Jordan spent most of her childhood doing nothing but gazing at the heavens.

“When I was a child, I was amazed by the stars in the sky at night, and I often wondered what they were made of and what else was out there,” said Jordan. “So from a very early age, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and I was determined to achieve it.”

Jordan was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the age of five, she and her family moved to Distrito Federal, Mexico. Five years later, her family moved again, this time to Miami Beach, fulfilling her parents’ wish to live in the “great land of opportunity.”

Her interest in science and space was fueled as a teenager when she watched the PBS series “Cosmos,” presented by astrophysicist Carl Sagan. At Florida Atlantic University, she loaded up on as many math and physics classes as possible, with an eye on pursuing a degree in physics.

“It was very intimidating to study subject matter that had this stigma of being very difficult, but my natural ability in math greatly encouraged me,” said Jordan. “I use my own story as a lesson for my students, that you can become whatever you decide to be if you are determined and stick to your dreams.”

After graduating from FAU, Jordan spent several summers as a graduate assistant at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York’s Long Island, as well as the Center for Advanced Microstructures and Devices at Louisiana State University. Her research was based on photoemission studies of surface energy states of copper-gold alloys. Jordan also collaborated with researchers at the University of Messina in Italy, developing a computer code for modeling surface energy states of copper, gold and their alloys.

Her teaching career at Palm Beach Community College began in 1995 as a part-time instructor at the Boca Raton campus; two years later she was hired as a professor at the Palm Beach Gardens campus, teaching physics and astronomy.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher – when I was young I played ‘teacher’ with my younger sister,” said Jordan. “I even assigned homework to her. She tells me to this day she still remembers the lessons I taught her.”

Jordan says her approach to teaching, especially with a potentially overwhelming subject like physics, is to make it interesting and relevant to her students. “I like to think of teaching as telling a story, the story of nature and its physical laws,” she said. “Each lesson unfolds some of nature’s mysteries, and another piece of the puzzle is added to make the picture clearer. Because physics can be difficult both analytically and conceptually, I also strive to create an atmosphere of learning, where students feel free to ask questions with no feeling of intimidation.” She calls her classrooms and labs “discovery zones,” safe environments to learn, where classmates come together as a team to help each other succeed.

“Professor Jordan really goes way beyond the textbook,” said Arjun Malhotra, 21, a student in one of her physics classes. “You can tell that she really wants us to succeed, and in turn, you don’t want to let her down. She really challenges you to do well, but she does it at our level. She doesn’t talk over our heads.”

As each of her classes progresses through the semester, Jordan likes to tell her students historical tidbits about the scientists who contributed each piece of the scientific puzzle of the subject they’re learning. She points out that some of these brilliant individuals may have experienced hardships, heartbreak and setbacks themselves. She notes that her scientific idol, Sir Isaac Newton, was an introvert, didn’t take criticism well and wasn’t the best of students in school. However, he had a powerful mind and great determination to succeed. Jordan cautions her students to recognize that science doesn’t happen overnight but builds from the contribution that one individual makes to the next.

“Newton was famously quoted as saying, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,’” said Jordan. “He also said, ‘Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is the truth.’ I make it a point to stress to students in all my classes that it is important to be ethical when reporting scientific findings.”

One story Jordan relates to her students is the time in 2000 she and her husband, Robin, a physicist at FAU, made a pilgrimage to Newton’s birthplace in England that included a trip to Trinity College in Cambridge where he studied.

“Cambridge is a private school, so you can’t get in unless you know someone there. My husband had an acquaintance there and wrote to him, asking if we could visit. This friend was kind enough to go a step further; he arranged for us to meet the head librarian where Newton’s works are kept. We had a private viewing of his manuscripts. We saw that he did his calculations in algebra and calculus, which was considered inferior at the time; in all of his published works the problems were in geometry. It was because his work was so deep and so complicated, no one at the time could understand it.”

To make the subject come alive for her students, Jordan does as many hands-on classroom demonstrations as possible, with students participating in the process. She believes this helps them make connections and remember the concepts of the scientific formulas they’re learning. Jordan invites students to bring in YouTube videos or their favorite clips from the popular cable television show, “Mythbusters,” to share with classmates.

Jordan makes it a point to tell her students that a career in the sciences and math is possible if they’re dedicated to learning and passionate about follow-ing their dreams. She urges them to apply for as many internships as possible in their fields of interest and to seek out any opportunities where they can network with established professionals. She also has accompanied several students to “Great Minds in STEM,” a yearly conference of the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation, where they attend seminars in career development.

“Lili is one of our gifted faculty members who engages students at their level of ability and raises them to a much higher level. Students understand she is genuinely concerned about their individual success,” said Scott MacLachlan, dean of student services at the Palm Beach Gardens campus.

In 2011 Jordan won the Gimelstob Student Choice Award for Excellence in Teaching. “That award will always be treasured by me because it was entirely student-based,” she said. “It was a very humbling experience and a great honor.”

“I have a love of learning, and if I can instill that in them, see it in them, it’s an incredible feeling,” she says. “When they ask more questions and want more knowledge, you realize it’s not just for getting a good grade; it’s because they want to learn. I see it happen in every class I teach, and it’s the ultimate compliment for a teacher.”