STEM Up (S2): Stephanie Ryan

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I always knew I loved science, but I wasn’t always sure how I wanted to pursue it. I went to Saint Mary’s College for a degree in Chemistry, fully intending on going pre-med and becoming a doctor. That is, until I became a TA for a nursing chemistry course and the instructor gave me more responsibility. I *loved* teaching content using nursing contexts. The instructor and my advisor pulled me aside and told me they saw something in me- and that I should really consider adding educating others to my plans. I still loved bench chemistry, so I worked to get trained in education and chemistry, and applied for master’s programs. I accepted a fellowship at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) that placed me in Chicago Public Schools as part of a program to develop better communication between scientists and the public. This coupled with a sudden illness that resulted in brain surgery (better now!), my goals shifted, and I decided that life was too short to not pursue my dreams of being an educator.

After getting my Master’s in Chemistry, I enrolled in the newly minted Learning Science program at UIC where I was the first to earn a Ph.D. Throughout my program I worked with teachers as part of professional development programs and in designing curricular materials. I noticed that I really enjoyed the “creating a product” and seeing direct results component of the work, rather than developing new theories. After working on the Connected Chemistry Curriculum project, I became an assessment specialist at the American Institutes for Research—and this is where I found a second love: Assessment writing.

After years in assessment, I left and started my own consulting practice, Ryan Education Consulting LLC, where I develop curricular material and write assessment items. And I couldn’t love it more! During this time, I also pursued a passion project of becoming a children’s book author. After having my son, I wrote Let’s Learn about Chemistry and it was published in June 2020.

1. How would you describe your job/role?
I work with stakeholders to develop curricular materials and assessments. Some days that means I get to read through science journals and news media to find unique contexts- and those are my favorite days! I write materials that help scaffold knowledge in the ways that people learn, and with that assessments that give a picture into their understandings. Another hat I wear is that of a science communicator. I work with others to help people find the science in their everyday and to make it less daunting! During COVID19 social distancing times, I have been very active on my Instagram account, sharing activities that I do with my son.

2. What are some challenges you have faced in this field?
When I first started after my PhD I faced an opinion that “I just got out of school” and that I was green, despite my years of experience during my Ph.D. program and postdoc. To people outside academia, they didn’t understand that I was managing large scale projects, and this wasn’t anything new to me. It was almost as though I had to prove myself even more, that yes, I belonged here.

3. What made you choose this STEM discipline? Were you inspired by someone?
I chose the Learning Sciences because I wanted to learn more about how people learned chemistry. I wanted to think of ways that we can teach chemistry better, so that we don’t hear “Oh, I hated chemistry in school” so often. As a society, so many of us fear science or don’t understand it. This can lead to mistrust of scientists or the extreme opposite of blindly following someone who says they are a scientist, without critically thinking about what they are saying. It has always been my goal to make science accessible for everyone and to help us become more informed citizens of the world.

4. What are some cool things that people in your profession work on?
A learning sciences degree opens so many doors that it is difficult to list all of the cool things people do with them! People design new technologies for learning, identify issues in education and design solutions, conduct research to determine mental models that students have when working through a problem, design assessments and curricular materials, etc. The field itself is interdisciplinary—so people work across domains and across sectors to find solutions.

5. What are 3 things that you wish could change about STEM?
I would change the narrative of what it means to be a scientist. When I first got into the field, I remember the “Draw a Scientist” activity, where students often drew a white male with a lab coat. It warms my heart to see trends shifting, at least in the classrooms when I’ve done this activity, that they draw themselves, one even drew herself wearing JUICY sweats. Being a scientist is for everyone, and everyone who wants to be a scientist can be. It is not just for white men! There are so many initiatives out there that I think help with this. Another thing I would change is the way we teach science, and granted, I think this shift is currently happening. Rather than teaching science as a book of facts, we need to teach it like a tool to help us find answers to our burning questions. If we teach it this way, then when we find new information that changes a recommendation, such as wearing masks, the general population won’t think that scientists don’t know what they are doing. They will understand that this is real science, a continually shifting body of knowledge that updates with new data. Finally, I would change the “weed-out” course structure. This is such a leak in the STEM pipeline and so many passionate future scientists are lost through this leak.

6. What do you think can help get girls into STEM?
Showing girls what real scientists look like will help them stay in STEM. When I was in graduate school, I would hear “Oh you don’t look like a scientist” and I was of a generation where I took that as a compliment. Looking back, I cringe when I think of that. I should have asked, “Why not? What does a scientist look like and do in your mind?” Showing girls that you can be girly and into makeup and still like science or that you can have blue hair and work at NASA is so important. There are some amazing Instagram accounts that focus on this— showing real women in their real lives as scientists and at home.

7. What message would you like to give to our young readers?

Always consider every opportunity. You never know where it might take you.

Thank you for reading our seventh STEM Up interview of Season 2! To know more about what Stephanie is up to, follow her journey at @letslearnaboutscience.

Follow us on Instagram for more women in STEM interviews at codejammies

Want to make a difference with your STEM story? Email us at codejammies@gmail.com

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