It took a long time, but my persistance paid off, and I was finally able to track down the very busy Cassie Byrd for her mandatory immigration interview. Cassie, for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of making her acquaintance, is a relatively recent transplant from San Francisco, and a veritable whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm when it comes to getting girls interested, and keeping them interested, in science.
MARK: My memory is a bit foggy, but I believe we talked quite some time ago at the behest of a mutual friend, Ruth Marks. Ruth, who left Ypsi for Oakland about three or four years ago, wanted to let me know that you were planning to move out this way from San Francisco… Is that right?
CASSIE: That’s correct. That would have been April 2014.
MARK: Before we get into your move to Ypsi, I’m curious as to how you came to meet Ruth.
CASSIE: Such a great happenstance! I was sitting in my office at the Exploratorium, where I worked at the time. In walks a colleague who was giving Ruth a tour of the building and making introductions. My colleague told us that Ruth was looking to do some volunteer work and had a background in the arts. I ran a program that utilized volunteers, so I asked her if she’d like to help me out. I asked about her background and she mentioned that she had started a children’s art center in “this little town in Michigan, near Ann Arbor, that you’ve probably never heard of.” I said, “Well, I’m going to be moving to that area, what town?” “Ypsilanti” she replied. “My partner and I just bought a house in Ypsi!”, I screamed.” Ruth then connected me with so many amazing people – even before I moved here… Thanks, Ruth!
MARK: So it wasn’t that you just met Ruth in San Francisco and felt as though you had to live in this quirky, little midwestern town where she grew up?
CASSIE: No, my partner had gotten into a joint doctoral program in Sociology and Social Work at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.
MARK: And why did you choose Ypsi over Ann Arbor? Was the decision strictly economic?
CASSIE: Well, the housing prices were much more reasonable, yes. But, no, it wasn’t a strictly economic decision. From the moment we toured Ypsi, we could see the diversity and feel the community-spirit of the town. Our house is on a bus route and very close to the Border To Border Trail. Both of these were important factors for my partner, who wanted to feel close enough, but not too close, to the U-M campus. Another driving factor was being very close to the Health and Fitness Center. I swim to take care of my back, and that pool is amazing.
MARK: So, what were you doing at the Exploratorium?
CASSIE: For almost 10 years, I was a science educator there. During my time there, I created the Homeschool Science Program and the Girls Science Institute. The girls’ program is my passion, pride and joy… As an undergrad, I was an engineering major – along with three other women. At a meeting in the office of my college of engineering’s dean, he literally told me that women were unwelcome in the program. I left his office in tears and decided to change my major to biology. After college, I worked as a molecular biologist for the Air Force. And it was while I was there, conducting trainings, that I realized that I was both good at teaching, and really loved it. The Exploratorium was the perfect place to merge my laboratory career with my love of teaching science.
MARK: Assuming this dean is still alive, I’m curious if you’ve ever considered reaching out to him and letting him know that your life’s work is now ensuring that other young women have the ability to do what he had stopped you from doing.
CASSIE: Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I can’t recall his name. I recently tried to do a little detective work to uncover his identity, but my Google prowess failed. I’m ok with that, though. I’m not sure I want to dig into an event that happened so long ago. Additionally, he likely wouldn’t remember a short meeting with a struggling female student from 22 years ago.
MARK: But clearly it was an exchange that affected you deeply.
CASSIE: Yes, the experience left me with an indelible understanding of the complexity of girls’ experiences in STEM fields. And it wasn’t just that exchange. I didn’t have any support for college success. As an eldest child with three younger siblings, I was on track to become the first in my family (parents included) to receive a college degree. But, because my parents had not completed college, I had no support in understanding how to study for my college courses, nor how to navigate the college system. In short, I also lacked out-of-school experiences that would have strengthened my understanding of STEM topics and provided me with non-family mentors to help me succeed.
MARK: Were you born in California?
CASSIE: No, but I got there as fast as I could! Though I identify with the Northern California mentality, I was actually born in Illinois and raised in Texas.
CASSIE: I have this fuzzy memory of sitting in the snow in front of an old white two-story house. I asked my mom about this memory once and she told me it was from when we lived in Waukegan, Illinois while my dad was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Station – where I was born. I must have been less than one year old. I’ve often wondered if that house is still there and if seeing it would resonate with that memory.
MARK: How long have you been here in Michigan now?
CASSIE: I rolled into Ypsi with a Penski truck full of my stuff on September 2, 2014 – after an amazing week-long drive across the country. I highly recommend South Dakota for nature lovers. I was stunned by the contrasting beauty of the Black Hills and the Badlands. And, camping from the back of a moving truck definitely sparked some interesting conversations with curious park visitors.
MARK: So, do you have any questions for my readers? Do you need to know about trash pick-up, the local library system, good places to eat, tips on local bus routes?
CASSIE: One good thing is that my partner was here for a year before I moved out, so we’ve got the bus route, trash day, and library all figured out. I have my library card, and I was busy this past cold and snowy winter learning to cross country ski with the wonderful folks in the Washtenaw Ski Touring Club. (Thanks Lucy!) The things I’m still seeking after being here for about six months are… 1) Good long distance road biking routes. (I just signed up for the Baroudeur Century, if ayone wants to ride with me.) And 2) an alternative way of getting to work in Dearborn. I work at U-M Dearborn and the drive is terribly boring, plus it increases my carbon footprint! Coming from San Francisco, where I biked to work daily, this has been a real challenge. I looked into a train/bike combo, but the first train leaving Ann Arbor isn’t until 1:00 PM! Until I can afford a more fuel efficient vehicle, are there any Ypsi folks who also work in Dearborn who would want to carpool? Also, I would love to hear all about events / things to do / places to see that your readers want to share – I’m quite eclectic in my interests.
MARK: It’s still probably over a year away, but eventually we’re supposed to get a Depot Town stop on the Ann Arbor – Detroit line, which will also have a stop in Dearborn. As there will just be a few trips a day, it may not be perfect, but our hope is that, if we can demonstrate need, it’ll grow over time. At least that’s the hope.
CASSIE: That would be fabulous! I’ll show my support for such mass transit. I can imagine a future where the innovation efforts in Detroit draw folks from Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. There are so many good things happening in Detroit – I’d love to see regularly scheduled trains throughout SE Michigan.
MARK: So, what is it that you’re doing at U-M Dearborn?
CASSIE: I’ve recently started work as part of the Extended Learning and Outreach team at U-M Dearborn College of Engineering and Computer Science to create teacher training programs to help teachers incorporate engineering design principles into their curriculum and to develop engineering-focused summer camps for K-12 students. This move is in response to calls for help from local teachers and to increase community engagement and interest in STEM fields and careers.
This work stems from the National Research Council (along with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve) recommendations for updated science education standards called the Next Generation Science Standards. These new standards incorporate engineering design alongside already taught scientific inquiry. So, my role will be creating a collaboration between the School of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and local teachers to help facilitate incorporating these new standards.
MARK: I understand that your work in Ypsi may decrease a bit now that you’re employed full time in Dearborn, but you’ve been quite busy here in the community since your arrival in town. You taught a Mars rover-inspired girls’ science program at EMU that my daughter and I participated in. You’ve done work with FLY Children’s Art Center, helping them launch their Fabulous Contraptions series. And, if I understand correctly, you’ve done work inside Ypsi Public Schools through the Bright Futures program. I’m curious as to what you may have learned about the community, and our kids, as a result.
CASSIE: Yes, I was fortunate to meet many of the local players in the field of informal STEM education before starting my current job — the folks at the Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach in Ann Arbor, who introduced me to Jamie Saville of Women in Science and Engineering, who introduced me to Russ Olwell, the Director of GEAR UP at Eastern. It was through Russ that I was able to teach the program that you and your daughter participated in.
I did work with the fabulous folks at FLY. I guided them to the activities that they incorporated into their Fabulous Contraptions workshop series that explored the intersection of art and science. As part of my job at the Exploratorium, I helped to curate hundreds of hands-on activities into an easy-to-navigate database called HowtoSMILE. So, I LOVE being a conduit to resources for teachers, out-of-school educators, and parents. In their video you can see kids exploring circuits while building Jitterbugs, exploring mechanics while building Cardboard Automata, and exploring the potential and kinetic energy in a Marble Machine.
I also participated in a Bright Futures Family Night at WIMA. I shared some activities related to how the eye-brain system works and what kinds of optical illusions are produced based upon that system. Although, the most interesting activity of that night (for me!) was the spontaneous activity of viewing the partial solar eclipse that was happening! I happened to have a pair of binoculars with me, so I demonstrated using the binoculars to view the eclipse on paper. (NEVER look directly at the sun!) I relish spontaneous moments of STEM learning.
Through these experiences with teachers, parents, and kids in the Ypsi community I’ve learned that there is a great hunger here for STEM learning opportunities – both in school and in out-of-school settings. I have an anecdotal story that highlights this: During August 2013, while moving my partner into our home, we attended the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival. As all your readers may know, there are a number of booths present and, at one of the booths, there were high school students demonstrating remote controlled robots. As I was walking by, I noticed a young girl, about 5 or 6 years old, operating the vehicle while her mother was talking with the teacher coach. She said that her daughter had this insatiable interest in science and she didn’t know where it came from as she herself wasn’t necessarily science minded. She lamented verbally at the lack of opportunities for her daughter to engage in STEM. I wanted to tell that mother – “I’m coming – I’ll be here for your daughter!” I knew in that instant that there was a place for me to share my passion for STEM with girls in Ypsilanti.
MARK: Given your experience, what’s your sense as to what works when it comes to getting girls interested in science, and, perhaps more importantly, keeping them engaged?
CASSIE: This is a huge question, with many variables, and lots of folks studying the topic. What research shows is that both girls and boys have equal interest in STEM topics through elementary school. However, by middle school, interest in STEM tends to diminish for girls. At this age, many girls tend to self-identify as either “being good at math and science” or “not being good at math and science.” In my work, I try to focus on girls between the ages of 10 -12 — hopefully catching their interest before they self-select out of STEM. Some key strategies for getting, and keeping, girls interested in STEM are:
INTRODUCE HER TO ROLE MODELS: If I asked you to describe the first image that pops into your mind when I say the word, “scientist”, what did you see? Many will describe the ubiquitous white male, with crazy hair, wearing a labcoat, probably blowing something up in a lab image. This stereotype belief holds true for girls too. Because of this, there is a disconnect between the descriptive stereotype that scientists must look like that crazy guy and how girls view themselves. So, we must introduce girls to many types of scientists with whom they can identify. “If she can see it, she can be it.”
GIVE HER OPPORTUNITIES TO ENGAGE IN STEM EXPERIENCES: Take advantage of girls’ interest in STEM from a young age – visit science centers and other informal learning environments, do activities at home that make the connection between STEM and everyday life (talk about the science or math of cooking while making dinner, explain a household or automotive repair to her, let her tinker with you – gaining hands-on experience with tools), or encourage her to sign up for a STEM related afterschool or summer program.
ENCOURAGE GROWTH MINDSET: Research out of Stanford University by Dr. Carol Dweck found that people could be described as having a fixed mindset (that their intelligence or talents were fixed) or a growth mindset (that their intelligence or talents can be developed through dedication and hard work). When we give girls opportunities to succeed and to fail, we create a space for them to learn from failure, which can help them develop a growth mindset. This piece gets at the heart of the “I’m not good at math” problem and paves the way for her to develop perseverance, which is critical for success in STEM fields.
MARK: It wasn’t too long ago that I interviewed another San Francisco native, Lee Azus, whose boyfriend Rob Halpern had gotten a job teaching creative writing here at EMU. If I remember his interview correctly, I think he had some concerns about moving to such a small town after having lived in the city for so long. Are you feeling any trepidation?
CASSIE: I definitely felt trepidation at first. Like Lee, I was worried about the culture of acceptance. I can say for a fact that I have never felt shunned or judged here. My neighborhood started a community on NextDoor.com and one of the organizers hosted a meet and greet at her home. That was a welcoming experience. Our mail carrier introduced herself soon after we moved in and told us to let her know if we needed anything. Anything! So kind. On that snow day at the beginning of February, many of my neighbors were outside helping one another shovel driveways and introducing themselves. I really felt included in the community. The people in Ypsi are truly beautiful.
[Still wondering why people are moving to Ypsi? Check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]