Summer 2013 | Article by Robert Morris
After a career at Tulane that dates back to her undergraduate days in the late 1970s, Annette Oertling will retire in June as the School of Science and Engineering's first Assistant Dean for K-12 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Outreach. Her passion for inspiring the love of science will continue to benefit young students, as not only does the program have a successor that Oertling describes as a perfect fit, but Oertling also plans to continue as a volunteer.
Oertling graduated from Tulane with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1978, worked eight years for Exxon and returned to Tulane, receiving a Master's in Teaching degree in the late 80s. She spent two years teaching high school science and math at Louise McGehee School and again returned to Tulane as a graduate student and adjunct faculty member in engineering. In 2001, she received her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and began as an instructor and lab supervisor in the School of Engineering.
All along -- drawing in part from her experience as a high-school teacher -- Oertling assisted with the organization and administration of Tulane's various programs for middle and high school students, such as an environmental-science summer camp and the FIRST® LEGO® League robotics competitions for Louisiana.
"I love teaching college students, but I also very much enjoy working with younger students," Oertling says. "It's fun to inspire them, to do creative things that get them excited about math and science."
After Katrina, with the New Orleans public-educational system in disarray, Tulane began looking for ways to get more involved. For the School of Science and Engineering, Dean Nicholas Altiero decided that meant collecting the outreach activities into an organized program, so he created a position of assistant dean for K-12 STEM outreach and installed Oertling, then a Professor of the Practice, in it.
"We decided that just participating here and there wasn't enough," Altiero said. "We needed to take more of a leadership role, and think more about what kind of an impact we were having."
The need was immediately obvious. The annual FIRST LEGO League robotics competition had been held in the fall, and in 2005 the sponsors initially planned to cancel it, because so many schools remained closed after the hurricane. After they started to reopen, however, the organizing committee immediately began receiving calls from anxious science teachers. They needed the program as a way to give hope and focus to their students, Oertling said, so the event was rescheduled and held in January 2006.
"We knew we could step up and contribute by helping to prepare and to inspire," Oertling says. "Once kids see the possibilities and experience the feeling of success and accomplishment, it gives them the motivation to continue in STEM fields."
The K-12 outreach programs now includes such initiatives as the Tulane Science Scholars Program for-credit courses for exceptional high school students, the Perry Initiative encouraging high school girls to pursue engineering and orthopedics, and the Girls in STEM at Tulane program to introduce middle-school girls to female role models. It also includes community partnerships supporting the Greater New Orleans Science and Engineering Fair (GNOSEF) for grades 6-12, the FIRST LEGO League middle school robotics program and the FIRST Robotics Competition high school program.
Those are the programs for students. Another crucial component of STEM outreach focuses on teachers through a partnership with Core Element, giving them training to better grasp the scientific concepts to enliven their classroom instruction.
"If you impact a student, you've impacted one kid," Altiero says. "If you impact a teacher, you know you've impacted thousands of kids."
The programs are intended to be fun while addressing a serious problem. In Louisiana, there are an estimated 2.8 science, technology and engineering jobs for every person seeking a job in those fields -- in other words, the state isn't graduating enough students trained in STEM to fill the jobs that are open.
While the need remains critical, Tulane's efforts are starting to see results. Over 20% of the Tulane Science Scholars participants since Katrina have enrolled in STEM majors at Tulane. And through an annual grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Science and Engineering Fair has been awarding $750 scholarships to the top four winners every year since 2008. Now, Oertling says, some of those scholarship recipients are enrolling at Tulane.
"I think it is fabulous that these programs are inspiring some of our local students to choose STEM fields and to choose to pursue them at Tulane," Oertling says.
In fact, after Oertling's retirement, her successor will be one such success story. Michelle Sanchez, the incoming director of the K-12 STEM outreach programs, is a New Orleans native and former participant in the Tulane Science Scholars Program. In fact, Oertling first met Sanchez while attending the International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose several years ago, and still vividly remembers Sanchez's excitement in hearing about Tulane's support of K-12 STEM outreach initiatives.
Since becoming a member of the Science and Engineering faculty, Sanchez has already begun improving the programs, Oertling said, using her technological talents to streamline many of the programs.
"She is passionate about K-12 STEM outreach, because she feels like it inspired her," Oertling said. "With her background and her skill set, she is going to be phenomenal."
With the program in good hands, Oertling is now comfortable with retiring from Tulane to spend more time with her family, but she won't be far from the outreach programs she built a foundation for. She plans to continue volunteering as a community partner with BLaST, Inc. (Building Louisiana Science and Technology), the nonprofit that oversees the FIRST programs, with GNOSEF, Inc., and with Core Element supporting teacher training.
"There's still a great need and I don't see that changing any time soon." Oertling said. "You simply have to do what you're passionate about".
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