Stephanie Wortel '06

Stephanie Wortel ’06

When Stephanie Wortel ’06 asked a group of middle schoolers to draw a scientist, they mostly depicted old white men with kooky hair and lab coats. Wortel certainly didn’t see herself represented in the drawings, but the real problem was that the kids hadn’t represented people like themselves, either.

“I saw how discouraged these students were,” recalled Wortel, who spent two years teaching earth science in a South Bronx public high school. “These were largely African-Americans, Latinos, many were recent immigrants to the United States, and none of them saw themselves as someone who could go into science. If there’s a whole group being subtly discouraged, maybe not intentionally, science is losing out on a diversity of thinkers.”

Now, as an education program manager at the New York Academy of Sciences — a membership organization for students and professionals — Wortel recruits scientists to volunteer for an after-school program for middle school youth from underserved backgrounds. “In New York City, we have twenty-three top-flight research institutions, from medical schools to universities, and we have about a half-million middle school kids who could really use some solid STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] enrichment but can’t necessarily afford it,” she said.

In the last four years, “We’ve worked with more than 800 scientists, so I’ve met a lot of up-and-coming researchers,” she said. “If you can show [students] a variety of young scientists who are passionate about what they do, they’re like, ‘Oh, I could identify with that person.’” They’ve served more than 130,000 hours with students, and a National Science Foundation grant facilitated the program’s expansion to Newark, N.J., and five cities across New York State. Wortel trains the volunteers and helps write an interdisciplinary curriculum that gives kids “a sense that science is not one flavor.”

Wortel, whose father is an electrical engineer, got that sense growing up. In eighth grade, she held a human brain at science camp. She was amazed that, “considering the enormous size of the universe and how complicated everything is, you can get all of human civilization from this little chunk of gray fatty matter.” The doctor leading the session suggested she check out Carl Sagan, so she read Contact. “It made me feel … almost spiritual,” recalled Wortel. It made her want to learn more about how the universe works.

physics and astronomy major at Colgate, Wortel studied quasars with Professor Tom Balonek and did a cosmology project researching the Circular Twin Paradox using Einstein’s theory of relativity with Professor Shimon Malin. Involved in theater, she and some friends revived Masque and Triangle and founded a pre-orientation theater camp called New Expressions. “Colgate instilled in me an activist mind-set,” said the 1819 Award winner.

After graduation, she first set her sights on Broadway. But, missing science, she connected with Loretta Skeddle ’95 at the American Museum of Natural History, where Wortel did astrophysics research and became a planetarium consultant. “I saw all of these people learning together, interacting with a meteorite, looking at a herd of elephants, and feeling like they were included in the culture of science,” she recalled. She became curious: how do people become engaged with science?

Seeing education as one way in, Wortel applied to the New York City Teaching Fellows program. At the same time, she began earning her master’s, working with the museum’s head of education and policy to learn more about researching how people develop a positive STEM identity. That has turned into Wortel’s dissertation topic for her PhD in science education research at SUNY Stony Brook. She believes that “strengthening STEM identity in middle school–aged learners will act as a vaccine or antibody to counteract any negative experience they encounter.” Wortel starts collecting data this fall.

As for her future, Wortel hopes to become an astronaut. But while her feet are still on the ground, she continues to explore. She sings with The Nerd Bait Band, and has a regular gig at Queen of All Saints Catholic Church in Brooklyn. She also writes a Tumblr blog at thepersonablewit (an anagram for her name), knits, swing dances, and is learning the ukulele.

— Aleta Mayne; Photo by Andrew M. Daddio