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MU's Anna Waldron spreads the word of science

Monday, December 17, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:49 p.m. CST, Monday, December 17, 2012
Anna Waldron, director of the MU Office of Science Outreach, works to make science and math education accessible to students at various grade levels.

COLUMBIA — Some teenagers embark on their college educations with their majors already chosen, confident they know what they're going to do for the rest of their lives. Anna Waldron was one of those teenagers.

"I really thought I wanted to be a forest ranger," she said. "Even my placement test that I did in high school said that it'd be a good job for me."

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When she got to college, Waldron majored in environmental science. She said she did well in her biology classes but struggled with chemistry and math. Her grades began to drop.

"I think I got a C-plus one semester — I had never gotten a C-plus in my life so that was really traumatic," she said with a smile.

Her academic adviser, an English professor, recommended a sharp turn in her educational path.

"He said, 'Your grades are much better in English and philosophy. Why don't you just switch your major?'"

Waldron heeded his words and switched to English education.

Eventually she found her way back to science. She has been the director of science outreach at MU since 2008.

As director, Waldron's jobs run the gamut from getting funding for science events for Columbia area kids to securing federal grants. All of them serve a common purpose: to make classes in science, technology, engineering and math — also known as STEM — accessible to the Columbia educational community.

"I feel like I need to have a tagline for my office: providing opportunities for STEM enrichment. I like that," Waldron said.

Early interest in science

Even though Waldron was interested in science early, she said she didn't realize it was science at the time.

Waldron was born in upstate New York and received her K-12 education while growing up in a couple of rural farming towns. She said her aunt, uncle and grandfather sparked an interest in bird-watching and astronomy for her when she was a girl.

"I can't name all of them anymore, but I used to be able to name whatever was in the sky at any time," she said.

Waldron recalled spending lots of time on those and other science-related pursuits, like catching bugs, when she was young. She even tried to make a diamond from a piece of coal after her mother told her that's how they were made.

"I took some rocks and put a piece of coal in the middle, and I put all the rocks on top, and I buried it in the ground. I used to dig it up, and it wasn't a diamond yet, so I'd bury it again," she said. "So I was a geologist for a few minutes there."

Waldron said a lot of her childhood was spent outdoors, something she tries to continue to do with her two young sons.

"I always push my own children outside, even if they don't want to. I say, 'Put on a hat, put on mittens, we're going,'" she said.

Detouring to English

After that fateful meeting with her college adviser, Waldron graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in English education. She got married the weekend before graduation and went with her husband to Tennessee, where he was attending graduate school.

Waldron worked as a substitute teacher, waited tables and edited electronic books for a publishing company.

"They were CD-ROM books back then because there wasn't the Internet," she said with a laugh.

After that, Waldron taught English and Spanish for a bit and then went back to New York. There, she got a job teaching gifted education at a school where she was substitute teaching.

Her passion for science was re-ignited. 

Waldron said her gifted students were really into science, so she sought out science-based projects for them. One project the class worked on for two years was about a Mars rover, automated vehicles scientists can direct to explore the surface of Mars.

"A couple of them were artsy, so we had a huge Mars mural on the wall in my office," she said.

Two girls in the class were particularly interested in the project, so Waldron mentored them. The girls ended up getting a paper published on the subject, and Waldron accompanied them to a related conference in Houston.

"I guess I was kind of living vicariously through them when I look back at it, but they were so excited, and it was so easy for me to say, 'I will support you. I will take the time and do this with you because I didn't have that,'" Waldron said.

Waldron said she thinks if she'd had a mentor to help her with her science career, she would have stuck with her environmental science major.

"I do think back on that and I think, 'Man, if I had had a little more academic support, I'm sure I wouldn't have switched my major,'" she said.

Going back to science

Through her work with the gifted education program, Waldron got to know a variety of scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, near her home in Aurora, N.Y. When a job as an education director at the university opened up, Waldron took it.

She said her job description was designing programs to get people excited about science, and she was psyched about it.

"I thought, 'I can do this! I've found the love of my life, here I am!'" she said.

Waldron developed science programs dedicated specifically to K-12 girls, such as an after-school science club called Tri Sci. She would take the research given to her from scientists at Cornell and translate it for younger audiences.

After seven years at the job, Waldron left for MU, taking a doctorate in education from Cornell with her. As director of science outreach, Waldron works with undergraduate and graduate students, K-12 teachers and students and just about anyone involved in education in Columbia.

Her duties as director are substantial, including developing ideas for science literacy programs with faculty, writing federal grants to get the programs funded, implementing them once they get funding, hosting the statewide Science Olympiad and holding science education events for Columbia area K-12 students.

Waldron also volunteers to teach three classes for graduate students, serves as adviser to the National Science Teacher Association and Project Science organizations on campus and is co-director of GK-12, a National Science Foundation program.

GK-12 is a partnership between graduate students and K-12 teachers and their students;  the graduate students come to fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in Columbia and teach them about science concepts the teachers want to work on.

Six schools are participating: Mill Creek, Midway, Blue Ridge, Shepard Boulevard, Grant and Derby Ridge elementary schools.

Candace Galen, professor of biological science at MU, is the other director of the GK-12 program. Galen said working with Waldron on the GK-12 program has been great, and they've become "good buddies."

"On hard days when there's fires you need to put out, which there are always plenty, really what keeps you going is having that person by your side that you can have a lot of fun with, that you can laugh with, that you can be yourself around," Galen said.

Tabitha Finch, an MU graduate student who has been both a student and collaborator with Waldron, echoes Galen's positive sentiments about Waldron.

"She is a great brain-stormer and helps me to articulate and form my ideas in a practical context," Finch said. "She has the experience to know what will work and what won't."

Helping women in science

Waldron said she's noticed that she has become a role model for women in STEM fields at MU.

"I'm kind of an educational mentor for a lot of the female scientists on campus," she said.

Waldron said one of her passions is helping women be successful with STEM subjects. She believes instilling interest must start as early as possible because girls can start to lose interest even in elementary school.

"In education, there's a bias that, you know, the boys have the right answers. I see it in classrooms," she said. "The boys tend to be more confident and outspoken in science, and in the classroom in general, and so you call on them to give you all the 'right answers.'"

Waldron thinks giving young girls female role models to look up to in the sciences is one way to increase their confidence and said she has seen a difference when observing classrooms taught by a female graduate fellow.

"I strongly believe you see a strong correlation between girls' motivation and interest in the science classrooms and those female fellows that are standing up in the front of the room," she said.

Waldron's colleagues said she is a great role model herself.

"Anna easily does the work of three people," Finch said. "People in the field of science outreach, and scientists themselves, know the name Anna Waldron and respect the work she does."

"I know people with her talents at other universities that are heads of major STEM centers," Galen said. "The university has a real good deal in Anna Waldron."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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