“…it took me awhile to learn that I love science as much as I do.”
How did you get interested in science?
I think I have always been interested in science. My parents allowed me to play in the mud and really explore my local surroundings. They provided plenty of opportunities to spend time in nature and read, which fostered my curiosity and love for science. Recently, my mom sent me a box of items from my childhood. I was surprised to find my second grade report card, with only one handwritten comment that read, “Claudia seems to enjoy science”. I don’t think I realized back then that I liked science – I never saw what I was doing as science, I just saw it as fun. As I got older, I became frustrated by my science classes. I could see science as this amazing thing, and yet, in my classes, we generally weren’t being taught in ways that shared science’s astonishing wonders. We spent time memorizing instead of gaining insights. During my junior year of college, I was able to join a true research project and realized how incredible classes could be when science was used as a process and tool. At this time in my life, I began to see how biology, chemistry, physics, math, engineering, and technology all worked together to help us understand our world. I was enamored and forever in love. However, the specific project I was working on caused me to be in the lab for hours alone, which I did not like. Furthermore, the pre-med track I was on was not for me. I also had a work-study job at the business office. I liked the nature of that job and specifically liked the help I was providing students. I was definitely unsure of what to do next. I began thinking of my next steps in terms of what I wanted to do with my time and how I wanted to contribute to my community.
With my new Bachelor’s in biology and a minor in chemistry, I decided to work as a Habilitation Aide at a home for people with developmental disabilities. I loved this place instantly because of the many different people there. Every resident had very specific goals that allowed them to live their fullest, most independent life. I was able to work with them and help them move towards achieving their goals. In this work though, I realized how much I missed science. I find it interesting that it wasn’t until I fully stepped away from science that I realized I did not want to work outside of science. I finally recognized that I could combine all of my loves (science, working with people, enabling growth) by going back to school to get my Masters in Education. After receiving my Masters and my teaching certificate I began teaching middle and high school science. In retrospect, I guess it took me a while to realize that I love science as much as I do.
What brought you to ISB and how have you seen the Systems Education Experience program grow while you have been here?
In 2003, I was teaching in Bellevue School District at International School, which is an alternative school where they had a unique physics first program. I heard that Lee Hood was going to work with the entire district to change the biology curriculum. I was worried because I felt that our biology program was very different than the district’s other programs. Our students did not take biology until their junior year, so we were teaching biology at a very interdisciplinary and high level. I was very vocal in asking questions about how Lee Hood was going to come into my school, understand my students, and make a change for the better. Then, they invited me to ISB, and asked me to personally talk to Lee about it. When I sat down with Lee and several others, including Nitin Baliga, I was so surprised at the conversation that took place. I began to see how science was no longer reductionist and instead was moving towards a highly quantitative systems approach. I then realized that I was not teaching my students that at all. I saw many huge new possibilities to enhance my students’ critical thinking. I was invited to join ISB during the summer to think of ways to successfully bring the new concepts of systems biology to students.
So, in the summer of 2004, I started at ISB. ISB was only 4 years old and the Systems Education Experiences program did not yet officially exist. There were education efforts here. However, this was the time that we began thinking about how we could build a new program that could be meaningful for not only the few people who could come to ISB, but also for those who could not. We wanted it to be equitable and accessible for everybody. From 2004 to 2006 I worked at ISB during the summers. In 2007, I was ready to take a break from the classroom, and Nitin asked me to join ISB officially and build the program. In 2009, we officially coined the name Systems Education Experiences (SEE) for our program. We have all built it together with scientists, teachers and students beginning from Nitin having two high school interns in 2003, to where it is now. This summer we hired 12 high school interns from 300 applicants. We have trained over thousands of teachers and have had over 2.3 million students complete SEE curriculum.
What is your favorite part about being at ISB?
My favorite part is that people see each other as having their own unique expertise that is valued. In schools and most organizations, there is a hierarchy. Here, any good idea can come from anybody. It is this interdisciplinary, collaborative place that gets things done.
What is your favorite part about your career?
I definitely like learning about new science and thinking about how it relates to the big picture. I like interacting with students and teenagers. I love working with young brains and hearing people’s interesting perspectives and ideas. I also love that I am able to work with teachers and help them better teach our students.
What do you see as the challenges in communicating and teaching science? What are the strategies to overcome these challenges?
I think one of the biggest challenges is finding the right level without introducing misconceptions. I think that is a humongous challenge. However, there are good resources out there that share this research through journals, videos, etc. I think it’s also a challenge to find the time to talk to people about what works and what doesn’t work. It is about finding the right level, the right amount, and the right way of communicating – this is something that can be different for everyone based on the way they learn.
What has been the impact of SEE so far? How many schools are using it?
All fifty states use some part of our curriculum, and many countries use it as well. We track usage with over 100 countries, but there are 15 countries that have utilized our curriculum to a high level. We are currently working closely with the UK to disseminate curriculum and systems science opportunities there. In terms of numbers of schools, we have about 2,000 people who access our webpages every month, and we know that of those 2,000 users, most of them are teachers. Each of these teachers may have anywhere between 20 and 150 students. We know the impact is potentially very high with student numbers well into the millions. Our Ocean Acidification Module was just written into the California State high school framework. California recommends that every school use this framework, so we anticipate that if this is followed, all 1.8 million high school students in CA will soon complete our Ocean Acidification module.
Where do you hope that SEE will go in the future?
I want to continue to create quality curriculum; quantity is not as important to me as quality. There are so many resources out there and new standards that have been released called the Next Generation Science Standards. Updating the curriculum is so very important. We are also at a point where we receive so many intern candidates and teacher candidates that we cannot meet everybody’s need. I would enjoy helping more people set up programs like this in their settings. If we can do more of this, there would be more opportunities for more people. ISB is only 200 people which means that we cannot always help everyone that we would like to. However, through helping others set up programs like this and showing them the benefit of programs like this, together we can do more good work.
How do you balance work and personal life?
Finding balance is hard sometimes. I try to give myself boundaries and deadlines so that I never feel guilty about taking time off. The other things I do are set very clear goals for myself and track them via my calendar. I work really hard to be productive with my time. I work to get projects started and finished quickly while being done well. If I’m not being productive, I allow myself time to take a walk, talk with a friend, etc., but then I make sure to get fully back on task so I can have significant time off in the near future. I set reminders on my calendar so that I never have to be preoccupied in my downtime.
What advice would you give to somebody considering going into the STEM field?
Given what is currently happening in science, I think having data and analytic experience and understanding how to use the power of computers are very important. I also think that writing is very important; the people who can write and present their work effectively do very well. When you are in college, ask your professors to give you feedback so you can become better at what you are studying. Additionally, you need to practice presenting. No matter how nervous you might be, it forces you to become a much better communicator.
When in the STEM fields, you must be persistent. There are so many people who apply to PhD programs and continue to not get in even though they are awesome. There may be a time in your life when you undergo rejection upon rejection. One of the best ways to learn from this is to contact the place where you have been rejected in order to learn how you could improve for the future. Always put yourself out there so that you can get more feedback and eventually improve.