Local Inspiration: Changing the Face of Science at the MSI

Today’s Chicago Women

By Margaret Sutherlin

Three women making a difference at the Museum of Science and Industry

When Olivia Castellini, a senior exhibit developer at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), met with a group of Chicago Public School students who were recruited to to give their feedback on a new museum exhibit, she asked what they thought it meant to “do” science and to draw what a scientist looked like.

What she got were a dozen renderings of Einstein, complete with glasses, crazy hair and beakers. Talk about a frustrating disconnect for a young woman who has her Ph.D in physics.

“There’s this misperception about science – that it’s done alone in a lab, by special people with special training,” says Dr. Castellini. “It became important to us that scientists be portrayed as a diverse group, working collaboratively in all kinds of settings. People totally miss that part because it’s often presented as boring, dry and in a textbook.”

At MSI, the issue of science education and engagement was at the forefront of the recent redesign of the brand and mission. Leading many of the new exhibits and educational programs are Olivia Castellini, Rabiah Mayas and Patricia Ward, three Ph.D-level scientists, determined to show that science is fun, inspired and accessible for all, particularly young girls and minorities.

Seeking STEM
Research consistently shows that the U.S. is falling behind in math and science education compared to other developed countries: we rank 27 out of 29. Just last month, The White House called on women to seek out science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, as women only represent about a quarter of the entire STEM workforce.

At a time when science and math education are becoming critical factors in keeping the U.S. competitive against other economies, educators, policy makers and scientists are trying to figure out how to engage young people. But when so many children lose interest in science, have the misconstrued notion of what science is – and given that girls and young women are often discouraged from pursuing STEM careers for a variety of reasons – it can be an uphill battle.

The science isn’t hidden at MSI, but told through stories that are more about inspiring kids to be curious and actively participate. Whether it’s the 13-foot virtual beating heart in You! The Experience or the 40-foot tornado in Science Storms, the enthusiasm from younger visitors is palpable in the exhibits and Center for the Advancement of Science Education (CASE) classrooms. And the museum wants to harness that enthusiasm in order to get children committed to and excited about science and math.

“We didn’t want [You! The Experience] to be Health 101 or Biology 101, because people can find that everywhere. We instead wanted a more holistic, integrated experience,” explains Dr. Ward, MSI’s director of Science and Technology.

Another innovative decision the exhibitions took to reach new audiences, especially girls, was to prove the point that science is something anyone can do. Exhibits are now carefully designed to allow visitors to actually participate in an experiment, and educational programs in the redesigned CASE allow students to do and build whatever science projects they can envision.

As the powerhouse behind the Museum’s educational programs for students, visitors and area teachers, CASE helps to foster children’s continued interest in the sciences by providing additional resources, with the goal of helping to keep kids engaged with science and STEM careers. From the internationally connected Fabrication Lab where kids learn to make literally anything, to programs for teachers that can also help them earn a Master’s in Science Education, CASE focuses on getting the extensive knowledge base and resources available at the museum into the hands of curious students and visitors.

“We wanted to get away from this antiquated mode of ‘wait and see what happens.’ It’s so important for a topic like physics, where there is just a stigma to it,” says Dr. Castellini, who led the content and interactive development team for Science Storms, which addresses chemistry and physics. “People just don’t see themselves as capable of doing this, and then they do, and realize it’s really cool…Our first driver is to make them feel that sense of awe to draw them in to try and figure it out.”

Beyond Einstein
Even more important than labeling science as accessible for anyone was the conscious decision to put a diverse face on the field.

“It’s important that people can identify with scientists. For women, it’s changed over time, but the accessibility isn’t the same as it is for men,” says Dr. Mayas, who works directly with children as director of Science and Integrated Strategies for CASE. “The leading researchers on TV or the cover of Wired credited with phenomenal discoveries are not women as often as they are men. What I find so dangerous about the [Einstein image] is that it’s equating science and scientists with an older, Caucasian man in a lab coat. That is stereotype upon stereotype, and doesn’t account for gender, ethnic and racial diversity within the scientific community, as well as professional diversity within the community. The extent to which we can promote different career opportunities and options, the more people will see themselves as future scientists and be able to identify with those paths.”

All three scientists can speak from personal experience about the impact of strong female role models in science. For Dr. Castellini, it was her Ph.D professor; for Dr. Ward, an enthusiastic high school biology teacher; and for Dr. Mayas, a leading professor in a lab where she worked one summer. They credit their continued interest in science with one very important image of a female scientist who mentored them and showed them that science is more than just sitting in a laboratory, and that their voices are critically important for the future of the field.

“Fifty percent of the brains in the world are women and we have a different perspective,” Dr. Ward says. “More and more science is moving in the direction of increasing collaboration around different disciplines. Science is big, big questions that are very complex and it requires participation of scientists with different kinds of specialties who are prepared and able and like to work collaboratively. That is a huge strength for women.”

As various fields in science collaborate to answer some of the most challenging questions of our lifetime, women’s perspectives and unique interpretations will be even more necessary to help address the big issues. The innovative programs and dedicated scientists of institutions like the Museum of Science and Industry will be even more important to ensure this perspective is fostered and valued in the community for years to come.


  1. Reblogged this on Sound Check 2 My Life.

  2. Thank you!!!

  3. Inspirational story, breaking the myth

  4. I’m in Chicago this September and am definitely making a trip to MSI. Great story! A solid science background for all children is so important regardless of what field they pursue later in life. The critical thinking skills and ability to objectively analyze data serve any career field well. Thanks for this!

  5. This leaves room for do-it-yourself options to become viable. Many people attending management training courses say that the two most common challenging situations faced by managers are 1.

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