A rainy day forced Grayson McDowell ’24 to change his lesson plans for 40 third graders visiting the Spartanburg Science Center during a field trip. Their time together would be focused on ecosystems, but he wouldn’t be able to lead the outdoor activities that he planned.
He quickly recognized that he could shift to teaching about sound indoors after remembering an episode of “Mr. Wizard,” where a record player was created by using a piece of paper, tape, a needle and a pencil. His familiarity with the show, which aired in the 1980s, is an example of his passion for learning and teaching science.
“It was definitely something I was doing for fun one day,” says McDowell, who often spent summers doing science experiments in his grandparents’ basement.
McDowell, a Wofford College physics major from Gaffney, South Carolina, has spearheaded initiatives to help Spartanburg County K-12 students learn science during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a podcast that he’s hosting to expose children to careers in science.
“If anyone knows Grayson, he is rather quiet and reserved,” says Mary Levens, executive director of the Spartanburg Science Center. “This is how I first met him as a Wofford Bonner (Scholar) looking for a place to work his hours for his scholarship. Slowly but surely emerged a young man that is not only a gifted teacher with children in the Spartanburg Science Center, but a creator of educational ideas. His love of physics and all things science came bursting out, and we have benefitted as well as the children that visit the science center.”
The Spartanburg Science Center was McDowell’s No. 1 choice when Bonner Scholars began selecting volunteer sites. It was the fall of 2020, however, and the COVID-19 pandemic limited field trips and visits to the center.
“I would sit there and look around, and the first thing I did was look at the fossil room,” McDowell says. “I started laying out things to do.”
The center soon received a grant to support virtual learning activities from AFL, an international manufacturing company headquartered in Spartanburg County. The grant made it possible for the center to purchase two cameras, and McDowell started recording lessons. He livestreamed some through the center’s Facebook account. Levens contacted K-12 school administrators to make them aware of the videos.
In the fall of 2021, he talked to Levens about developing a podcast where he would interview Wofford faculty and others involved in science across the county. The center also received donations to set up a studio to record the “Out of the Lab” podcast from Contec Inc.
“It’s really gratifying,” McDowell says. “The only thing I can do is make a podcast that I would like to listen to or a Grayson in high school would like to listen to.”
His approach is well received.
“People have complimented me by saying I’m a natural and it seems like I’ve been doing this for years,” says McDowell, who never envisioned himself being behind a microphone, even though his dad often said he had a future as a gameshow host or a preacher.
He’s quick to talk about friends who’ve helped during the process. A good friend active in theatre taught him about spiking to mark places for items on the set, like the coffee mugs in front of McDowell and his guests. Charlie Yang ’25 is another Bonner Scholar, and she helps McDowell record and edit, while also talking through ways to improve quality and graphic design.
“Grayson holds a strong passion in what he loves, and, with the podcast, I can see that passion very clearly,” says Yang, a psychology major from Moore, South Carolina. “From day one of working in the studio, I could see how much dedication and work he had placed into having this podcast—from setting up equipment, figuring out new equipment and making plans for future interviews.”
Science and its relationship with people’s lives fascinate McDowell. He’s a student ambassador with the Spartanburg Faith in the Vaccine program that’s supporting efforts to improve COVID-19 vaccination rates in the local community.
“When I applied for FIVA (Faith in the Vaccine), I made it clear it was sort of an intersection with my faith, which is best expressed with community service and my experience with science communication,” McDowell says.
McDowell will spend the summer leading summer camps at the Spartanburg Science Center, including the Little Terriers Summer Camp that he developed. It will bring 10- to 14-year-olds to Wofford’s campus to interact with faculty and staff.
He’s considering careers in engineering, science journalism or using his background in science to support nonprofits.
“When people think about charity, they mostly think about giving money, but the most impactful contribution is through your service or work, and you can do so much good using a physics degree to help with clean water and issues like that,” McDowell says.