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On the record ... with Pati Sievert

Published: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 10:06 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Curtis Clegg - cclegg@shawmedia.com)
Pati Sievert's love of science was not encouraged when she was a child, but her mission now is to encourage that love in others.

DeKALB – Pati Sievert never gave up on science.

“I always had an interest in science,” Sievert said. “I was one of the girls in the 70s who didn’t get much direction, so I didn’t go into it then.”

Sievert studied art in college, but her love for science kept pulling at her.

“When I came back to school I wanted to be a science teacher. I chose physics because that had been my favorite science in school and I really got sucked into it,” she said.

Sievert is the outreach coordinator for the STEM Outreach program at Northern Illinois University. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The program delivers off-campus programs and on-campus activities to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics literacy for children, families and educators.

The newest activity is the monthly STEM Cafe, which brings scientists to informal settings to lead discussions about science topics. Last week’s discussion was held at Taxco Restaurant in Sycamore, where a scientist talked about pseudoscience.

Sievert sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to talk about science programs.

MidWeek: What is the history of the STEM program?Pati Sievert: STEM outreach here on campus evolved from an outreach program I had been running in physics for several years. That was grant-funded and the university liked the idea of outreach, but being a regional university, we can’t afford to fund outreach people in each department. So we brought it all together under one roof and called it STEM outreach. We are coming up on finishing four years of STEM outreach and the program has grown immensely.

MW: What is your background?PS: My background is originally in art, and then I came back to get a physics certification. I taught physics for a bit, and then I did outreach in the department of physics.

MW: How long have you been at NIU?PS: I have been at NIU as an employee since 2002.

MW: How many schools at the university are part of the program?PS: The College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Education and then the College of Health and Human Sciences. Those are the four main ones, but the College of Visual and Performing Arts is active because some of the art fields have a technology background like the time arts, computer animation and web design that fit in the technology field. Technology is really broad-based.

MW: Are you responsible for reaching out to the different colleges and coordinating your efforts?PS: I’m not telling them what to do, but I am trying to find out what they are doing so we can let the public know about it. We are also doing some things together with them. If we find something that we think might be a good idea, we will ask them, “Do you want to do this? If you do, we can help you.” It took about a year and a half for most of them on campus to realize we were here and what we were doing. It’s a big place.

MW: What benefits has the program had for the university and the community?PS: One of our biggest projects is STEMfest. We do that in the fall. We have done it twice now. We rent out the entire Convocation Center and fill it up with hands-on activities. That has really taken a lot of collaboration across campus and we got virtually every STEM department involved last year. One of the benefits to the university in doing that is that it brings all the people here – there were more than 4,000 people that came to STEMfest last year. Another advantage is that we had 400 NIU student volunteers involved. Any time we get our students engaged in a project like that, it’s good for them and it’s good for the school as a whole.

MW: Do you think children are interested in attending Northern after they go to STEMfest?PS: We hope so. We do some surveys, and parents were definitely more interested in their kids coming to Northern. They had a positive view of NIU after coming to STEMfest.

MW: What can you tell me about your in-school programs?PS: We have programs where we go into schools and we do demonstrations. We have about 100 hands-on interactive exhibits that we can bring out to schools. When we do that, we are engaging two to five NIU student volunteers to set it up for the day. This year we impacted about 21,000 kindergarten through 12th graders in northern Illinois, if you count all the programs together.

MW: Why is it so important to expose school kids to these programs?PS: We are starting to fall behind a little bit. China has more honors students than we have total students just because there are so many of them. They are focusing a lot on the engineering and sciences, although I don’t think they have the creative edge that the U.S. has yet. But we need to encourage a higher percentage of our students to be interested in engineering and science and those fields that will allow us to have that creative edge in the future. Even if a student isn’t going to be an engineer, the kids growing up today, no matter what they do, are going to have to know a lot more technology and math and science than we did when we were growing up. …We all need to know more about science in general and how science works.

MW: Are you focusing on reaching any particular groups of kids?PS: In science and engineering, we have groups that are underrepresented. If we look at biology, we are doing pretty well – we’ve got as many women as men and minorities are starting to catch up in the life sciences and health fields. But if you look at engineering and physics and computer science, in those areas we have a very small number of women and minority students.

MW: Is that part of the STEM program’s mission, to attract women and minorities to these fields?PS: We are part of the Illinois Girls Collaborative Project, so we have spent some time looking at that. There is a really good study booklet put out by the American Association of University Women called “Why so Few?” that points out about eight different things they have pointed out in the study – one is that a lot of girls have this fixed mindset, meaning they think that everybody has a fixed intelligence and ability, and you can’t do anything about it. We find that if we talk about the growth mindset, where we consider that we all can change and improve, that just talking about that can improve results …. The one area that seems to be the most stubborn from a young age is that girls, in general, have a deficit in three-dimensional spatial relationships. That seems to come from the fact that they don’t play with as many building toys like LEGOs and blocks and structure sets. The more we can do that, the more they can overcome those obstacles. Then there are things like what they call stereotype threat – they found that if you give two groups of students the same test and tell one group that girls don’t generally do as well as boys on the test, then the girls will score lower. If you give the same test to the other group and make no comments at all, then the girls and boys score about the same.

MW: When you go to schools, do you just give demonstrations or do you teach the teachers how to teach science?PS: When we do the demonstrations, we bring out things that they can’t necessarily do at the school like liquid nitrogen demonstrations and some expensive things that they don’t have access to. But we also do things that they can do in the schools, and we share some of the things that they can do. …This fall at the Illinois Science Educators conference we are going to do a large workshop about our Spooky Science and Haunted Physics labs. We also have an informal online publication for teachers that shows some of the activities they can do in their own classrooms.

MW: What is your involvement with the DeKalb Public Library science kits?PS: We didn’t make the kits, but we worked with them when they got a grant from IEEE, a professional engineering group. We worked with them on choosing the kits and choosing some of the materials that go with them. We have been doing some workshops with them too. Last Saturday they had a build session, and in June they will have an electric fair where they will be doing an art project based on what they were working on (May 26).

MW: You are really getting out in the community a lot.PS: We try to be. We are trying to capture people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as being interested in science or engineering, like with the electric art lab. That’s one way to capture a group that might be interested because they like to tinker or they are into art.

MW: Tell me about your summer camps.PS: We have openings yet in all of them. We have engineering amusement for our youngest group, the early middle schoolers. We are looking at amusement parks and the science and engineering that go into them. They make roller coasters a couple of different ways and test out some things. …On Thursday we go to Great America and do some experiments on some of the rides, and also have some fun. Engineering has a robotics camp for middle schoolers. …At another camp, we explore science through art. I have a blast with that because it covers both of my interests. There will be some holograms and we will do some polarized art, some tie-dying and some kinetic art. We have a couple of different environmental camps for middle and high schoolers, and we have a careers camp for high school students.

MW: What is SF Teen Read?PS: That is a collaboration with the area libraries and what we do is work with the libraries’ teen book clubs. All the libraries have teen book clubs. Four times a year, the kids will all read the same science fiction book and then instead of meeting at their own library and having a discussion amongst themselves, they will come to NIU and we’ll all get together and meet with scientists and talk about the real science in the book.

MW: What are science Saturdays?PS: For quite a while we have had people asking about programs on Saturdays that kids could come to. We recently added another full-time STEM Outreach person so we were able to do the Saturday science. We advertised six sessions – two each in February, March, and April – and within 24 hours the robotics ones sold out. I ordered more robotics kits and added a second session and that filled up, and then we added a third session and filled that up.

MW: What is “Summer Under the Stars?"PS: We will have two more programs. The one in July will be about telescopes and optics and we have an astrophysicist from Fermilab who is an NIU alum. She used to be the observatory manager, so she is going to talk about telescopes. …In early August we will do “Curious About Curiosity.” We are lining up a geologist to talk about the geology on Mars because the Mars rover Curiosity should land on Mars early in August and we want to do our event shortly before the landing.

MW: Where did you get the idea for STEM Cafe?PS: There have been cafes like that in Europe for years, where they would bring a scientist into a local cafe and have a casual conversation with the public. I have been wanting to do them for several years but I didn’t have the staff to pull it off. …The first one was by Suzanne Willis, who has done a lot of speaking about pseudoscience over the years. She ties the pseudoscience topic in with what some people are concerned about, 2012 being the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. …The July one will be “Your Brain on Social Media.”

MW: Is STEM Cafe part of a larger effort to reach adults in the community?PS: We have programming for every group from kindergarten up through the student groups here on campus, so getting the adult community members involved seemed like the next natural step. …It’s all a big feedback loop. If you get the parents excited, you can get the kids excited.

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