Authors on STEM and Accelerated Learning: An “In Conversation” with Stephanie Ryan & Jenny Woodman

Stephanie Ryan has experience in curriculum development, assessment, and training staff on how to use technology and software. She earned her Ph.D. in Learning Sciences with a focus on Chemistry Education. Let’s Learn About Chemistry is her first book.

Jenny Woodman is a writer and educator. She holds a B.S. in Communication and an M.F.A. in creative writing, both from Portland State University. Her work has been published in IEEE Earthzine, OES Beacon, Portland Monthly Magazine, Ensia Magazine, and Atlantic Monthly.

Jenny: I wanted to start with what inspired you to write Let’s Learn About Chemistry?

Stephanie: I was inspired by my son Charlie! He was sorting his toys by color and shape and it kind of smacked me in the face. A lot of concepts in general chemistry are albeit more complex sorting tasks, but sorting tasks nonetheless.

Jenny: Interesting, how old is Charlie?

Stephanie: He is 3.5 now. At the time that I started writing this he was… probably 1.5.

Jenny: Did you have an interest in writing for very little children prior to that?

Stephanie: In my career, I’ve written curricular materials for K-12 and college students, but hadn’t considered writing for the younger crowd in this format until then. That day, I storyboarded several ideas for concepts in STEM that involve sorting. It all started in a Powerpoint!

Jenny: That’s pretty amazing — I love that. So, you have written about science before, that probably helps! What is your science background?

Stephanie: Yes, I also have a lot of experience “leveling” concepts from higher grade levels to lower grade levels. A lot of science concepts were moved to lower grade levels with the introduction of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

My background starts way back when I was a kid. My dad used to drive us to Purdue University every Saturday in the winter and spring to attend their Super Saturday program. We packed up bologna sandwiches and cans of soda in our cooler and made the 2-hour drive very early. I was exposed to the really exciting demonstration of freezing objects like bananas and roses in liquid nitrogen and then shattering them. I was hooked. I signed up again another year to take a physics course where I was the youngest kid and I won the egg drop. Probably owe some credit to my engineer father for that, but still.

I loved science and raised money to attend the Summer Youth Program at Michigan Tech University, where I took three courses over two years. I learned about genetics, chemical engineering, and some course in medicine that I can’t recall. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I majored in chemistry with an idea of the MCAT. Towards the end of college I decided I might want to go to graduate school and I might want to teach, so I pursued education. I got into a masters in chemistry program at University of Illinois at Chicago, where I was part of a really cool National Science Foundation project that put grad students in young classrooms. I was paired with a middle school class in Chicago. I loved it so much, that when the university started a Learning Sciences program, I switched gears (after finishing my masters of course) and focused my career on how students learn science, especially how I can help them do that in a non-traumatic way that leaves them saying, “Oh I hated chemistry” when they are adults. That said, I love biology, especially genetics too.

Jenny: Wow! That’s pretty wonderful. Clearly, the early start had a big impact on you, and it is really interesting to see the way education and the process of learning formed a pathway in the midst of what had to be very challenging coursework. Does this book align to standards?

Stephanie: There are not officially standards at this age level, but it aligns well into concepts that they will have in K-5 for sure. The book addresses chemical and physical changes using everyday scenarios and the kids get to explore solids, liquids and gases using familiar things like water and juice. The book was edited after its trial reads with my son’s class based on the things that the kids asked about. So, it is toddler tested! It also explores the different levels we see things, to prime them for talking about molecules.The NGSS also focus on science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts- this book has students find patterns and build explanations with evidence, among other skills.

Jenny: Toddler tested — adorable! Yes, I like how you move through some everyday objects, adding concepts important to chemistry.

I wanted to go back to something you mentioned about non-traumatic ways of introducing science to kids. I’m definitely one of those people who was traumatized by math and science when I was younger. By middle school, I was totally checked out. Flash forward many years, and I went back to school as an adult and discovered that I loved science and math. I’ve spent the last few years writing about ocean science, interned at NASA and basically fell in love with science in my late 30s. So, now I’m curious about the concept of non-traumatic STEM (or STEAM) learning. Can you touch on that a bit?

Stephanie: Your path is awesome, and I am so glad you came back around to science and do what you do. Yeah, it is a pet peeve of mine when I hear people talking about making science relevant. I mean, what is more relevant than the world around you? With NGSS, we are seeing a switch in the classroom from teaching concepts to using concepts to explain a phenomenon. The content is a tool to help you answer a question you were wondering about. With that lens, I imagine fewer students getting turned off and checked out of science.

Instead of doing fun demos that are flashy (which, don’t get me wrong, they have a time a place and excitement is something we can use to help introduce people to a subject), we can tap into something they care about and help them explain the world that they are experiencing. That is why I strongly believe that STEM books and toys are not novelty gifts but essential tools in the development of inquisitive minds.

Jenny: Yes, the rote memorization and cramming for exams killed me. Then, years later I took an intro geology class to fulfill my degree requirements. I live in the Pacific Northwest and was driving around all these volcanoes and remarkable formations — understanding what I was seeing ignited something for me, and it was breathtaking! Books like this are definitely not a novelty item! Do you think parents who aren’t engaged with science will connect too?

Stephanie: Yes. This was a concern that was expressed to me in the early stages of writing the book, that only fellow chemistry and chemistry education parents would want the book. I worked with a developmental editor and my non-scientist, but science-loving husband to make sure that the book was engaging for the adults and the children too — even parents who think they hate chemistry.

Jenny: That’s really neat and definitely something I enjoyed when reading! Along those lines can you talk about accelerated education and STEAM? (Sorry, as a science-loving writer, I’m all about adding the arts into STEM!) I’m not familiar with the concept of accelerated education and was hoping you could expand on that a bit.

Stephanie: I haven’t been trained in accelerated education, but I would say that my book fits right into their guiding principles. When I read my book to groups of small children, I ask them about their senses and try to evoke that when we talk about liquids being wet and slippery. The book also lets the child create their own patterns of what they think is different and the adult reading with them is encouraged to validate that answer as well as show them the way that the author categorized it. They can integrate the new information into their existing framework and access it again later.

The book is a social learning experience, meant to be read as a group or with an adult and not alone. This also fits well with accelerated learning as they believe that “collaboration aids learning.” The book is designed to elicit positive emotions to help foster learning. It uses things that kids play with or experience daily and I often hear “I have a soccer ball at home.” or things along that nature.

And, as far as STEAM education, I think that the process of using science concepts to explain the world around us, it opens up art even a new way. Pigmentation of paints, removing paint from brushes etc. These can all be explained by science.

Jenny: The thing that really made me focus on the intersection of art and science was learning about all the artists, many of whom were women, who helped document early discoveries, before photography and technology — it was artists. That was when I really pushed from STEM to STEAM in my mind. This approach seems pretty transformational — I love it. I feel like this encourages a sense of wonder and curiosity, which we really need more of!

Stephanie: Yes, and if you think of a 3.5 year old, that is what they do. Walk around the world with a sense of wonder and asking questions! If we show them that science is a tool to help us answer those questions instead of facts in a textbook, imagine the possibilities. I will say, it warms my heart when my son calls rain a liquid and snow a solid.

It also positions the kids as owners of knowledge instead of vessels to be filled, which I think is important for the growth of an informed society! With the internet, it is important to be critical consumers of information. Students who use science to answer their questions will be better at making sense of information that is out there and less likely to be deceived.

Jenny: Yes, kids are so naturally curious and engaged with the world this way. And YES! Much less likely to be deceived!

Stephanie: Yes, it always drives me a little nuts to see science for non-majors. Everyone uses sciences in their own way!

Jenny: Absolutely! Do you have plans for a future book?

Stephanie: I do. I have a few ideas of different science content through this same lens of which of these is not like the other in biology, space, earth science etc. But this past week I thought of a fun story about carbon to help teach bonding and electrons. I plan to sketch it out in a notebook on the beach next week while taking a much needed gifted birthday break.

I already have the image in my mind that I would pitch to my illustrator! But, first things first, I need to launch this book into the general public on June 2nd!

And, I did have one thing I wanted to add about equity and science education if I could?

Jenny: Please!

Stephanie: Because STEM books and toys are often part of a novelty gift or niche market, I think that a lot of children are missing out on these types of tools, especially those from less privileged backgrounds. It is for this reason that I donated a copy of the book to every head start program in the state of Indiana and have offered the book to daycares and preschools at lower costs. I want all children to have access to these tools! Science should not be elite, it should be open to everyone!

Jenny: That’s so important and I really do believe all children need access to opportunities, especially underrepresented groups. I wrote my master’s thesis on women in STEM and the economic disparity created by women and people of color not entering into high-paying careers in engineering and technology means less innovation all around, and less economic opportunity for everyone! So, your approach to starting so early makes a great deal of sense to me.

Stephanie: Well, now I want to read your thesis!

Jenny: I’d write it differently now. Actually, I’d really like to write it as a children’s book. It was primarily a literary nonfiction exploration of the Harvard Computers, women who made incredible discoveries in astronomy in the 1800s, but there was a background section where I learned a great deal about economic disparity and the like.

Stephanie: That’s so cool! It is disappointing the stories that have been hidden about the women behind discoveries attributed to men. I’m so glad!

Jenny: I think that is shifting a bit now, but we need more!

Stephanie: It is a big focus of mine in my career!

Jenny: Me too! I noticed the representation in the text, which I loved!

Stephanie: The children in my book are my son’s real childhood friends, and although they are of similar economic backgrounds, they are of different ethnic backgrounds, which was important in the development of the book. I wanted to make sure that children reading it felt represented. It just turned out that his closest buds helped me with that!

Jenny: Before we go, is there anything I didn’t ask you — anything you would really like to share about your book?

Stephanie: I think you captured it all. It was really fun to write, work with the illustrator and share with the world. I can’t wait to release it! Thanks for taking the time to talk!

Jenny: Thank you for working on connecting kiddos to science!

Stephanie: Yes, I love sharing it with kids. My son calls it, “His book”. I always correct him and say, “Mommy’s book, that you are in”.

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