Debbi Stone is Vice President of Education at the Florida Aquarium and part of the Tampa Bay STEM Network
In addition to the standard profiles of STEM leaders, this month we also asked for a summary of thoughts on the spring 2018 national STEM Learning Ecosystems convening. Debbi’s insights and profile follow.
Your Audiences: Do You Have THEIR Voices?
When I returned from the STEM Ecosystems and U.S. News Conference and reflected upon my notes, a common thread emerged. Rather than operating in a silo and determining what to “do TO our audience(s),” the most effective and purposeful work is a collaboration working WITH those we strive to serve. And yet, too often, the audiences we’re trying our well-intentioned best to impact are absent from the conversation or brought in late, almost as an after-thought, when much of the high-level decision-making has already happened.
While I was aware of this before, and had been intentionally striving to be more cognizant of providing opportunities for meaningful collaboration with our audiences, I had an a-ha moment when Jeremy Babendure (Arizona SciTech) talked about students. He remarked that many of the National STEM Ecosystems are working directly with youth audiences, and yet…how often are the voices and opinions of the youth we serve taken into consideration, or even sought? I left the CoP with a renewed commitment to seek active and contributing voices from our audiences, something that can inadvertently be forgotten when I am facing deadlines and the tyranny of the urgent. As a professor once said to her class, “If you don’t have the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?” Taking the time to involve as many stakeholders as possible may indeed seem to hold up or delay progress but, in the end, the resulting work is likely to be stronger and most reflective of what your community actually needs.
1. What’s your background?
I have an odd, roundabout history that led me to where I am, and I’ve appreciated the journey! Thinking I was going to be a professional musician, I earned two Bachelor of Music degrees in 1993 from the Peabody Conservatory of Music (Johns Hopkins University): Music Education and Saxophone Performance. After teaching middle school music in MD for three years, I took a leap of faith and began working on science prerequisites that enabled me to enroll in and earn a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in Middle Grades Biology from Quinnipiac University (1999) in CT. To keep my teaching fresh, I was fortunate to land a part-time job at Mystic Aquarium conducting outreach for schools in Hartford, CT as I completed my MAT, and I was forever hooked on informal science…where I have lurked ever since. From teaching to grant-writing, fundraising to animal-handling, and other odd adventures along the way, I’ve been able to roll up my sleeves and engage in community education in a meaningful way, seeing time and time again that youth need to “see it to be it.” Had I understood myself what a STEM career could have been many years ago when I was considering my options and interests, I may have taken a different path. While I don’t regret my career-change and its accompanying adventures, I encountered opportunities, mentors, and encouragement along the way that inspired me to stretch. So many of the audiences with whom I work lack that support, so it’s critical that STEM professionals reach and inspire the bright minds that may have the capability but not the opportunity…yet!
2. What are you working on for the future for the Ecosystem?
In the Tampa Bay STEM Network, we are still expertly executing many “random acts of STEM.” While it is likely there will always be isolated examples of great STEM programs that happen independently of the Tampa Bay STEM Network, we are striving to be intentional and connected. A challenge for us is that our primary school system of Hillsborough County serves over 200,000 students and is the 8th largest school system in the nation. Across Tampa Bay, Pinellas County is also a very large district that routinely falls into the top 30 in the US in terms of student enrollment. Our Ecosystem is working on how to scale our efforts and programs to reach large numbers of students. We have an amazing opportunity to reach so many, and that is also a challenge when resources are often limited.
3. What do think can be accomplished within the framework of the Ecosystems that can’t be done (or is more difficult) without it?
Ecosystems provide a platform for collaboration that can be challenging outside a formal structure or when led by a single entity. Many organizations compete for the same funding, the same audiences, the same resources, etc., and coming together and acknowledging that while still working toward a common goal of strengthening the community together is and has been amazing. In the Tampa Bay STEM Network, for example, every member of TBSN answers to “someone,” be it a supervisor, a Board, shareholders… that doesn’t change and cannot be ignored. When we put egos and/or agendas in the background, we recognize that a rising tide raises ALL ships, and we are able to accomplish phenomenal things that allow each person, each organization, and each initiative to share and volley the spotlight. The Ecosystem framework, in essence, allows community representatives to be candid about the realities of who they answer to and why yet to still work within those lanes to advance the goals of the overall Ecosystem.
4. What’s the most fun and/or rewarding part of your job?
By far the most rewarding part of my job is seeing the lightbulb: the moment a child’s curiosity is visibly piqued. Through STEM, and specifically through informal science, there are so many a-ha moments and opportunities for wonder. Being there when a spark is lit is intoxicating! And while I admit that animals are often an easy way to “hook” kids’ interest, because they are indeed fascinating, some of the best moments for me have happened during coding events, robotics labs, or watching kids interact with a SCUBA diver using a writing slate or a full-face mask.
5. Who was a role model for you when you were younger? Favorite teacher?
I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I wanted to be Marlin Perkins. Today, I see similar excitement from kids who may want to be Jeff Corwin, Bindy Irwin, Jack Hanna, or STEM “rock stars” such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mae Jemison, or even Bill Nye the Science Guy. My favorite teacher was my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Shermer, who I recall being the first teacher who related to her students as if they had a voice, something valuable to say despite still being a “kid.” I had wonderful teachers prior to her, but she was the first one who made me feel like my opinion (not just my ability to learn content) actually mattered.
Congratulations to Debbi on her selection as a fellow in the LEAD STEM program.