As an Oak Ridge High School science teacher with more than 25 years of experience, Barbara Olson is unquestionably passionate about teaching chemistry and physiology to her students. But Olson becomes particularly excited to discuss motivating her female students to pursue advanced science studies and, ideally, a technical education and career.
“Back in my day, we were not encouraged at all to go into science and math, and I think girls like having a female chemistry teacher. It can make a difference,” said Olson.
It is common knowledge that America is lagging in the global race to produce advanced science university graduates compared to other developed nations, and it as equally well documented that the number of female students pursuing technical education and careers trails far behind their male counterparts.
Numerous studies have reported on reasons experts believe that is the case, but one of the commonalities in the studies is that female students can achieve the same academic heights as their male counterparts. They just don’t show the interest to pursue technical education at the same rate. And while the number of young women pursuing technical education and careers has improved over recent years, it is still dismal enough that technology companies and educational institutions alike are actively involved in efforts to inspire and produce more female scientists.
Along with her fellow chemistry teacher Steve Hummel, Olson has been at the forefront of this effort for most of her career at Oak Ridge. Starting in the late 1990s and funded through education grants from Intel Corp., the teachers began developing science enrichment programs specifically for high school girls.
One of the highlights of the programs was an Oak Ridge group of girls who competed in the national Botball competition where students develop autonomous, non-remote controlled robots, with sophisticated artificial intelligence via computer programming language. The Oak Ridge team — the first all-girl team at the time — won the state competition, and impressed NASA enough to provide scholarships to the girls to compete in the national tournament and attend a Space Shuttle launch.
“At their very first competition in California, our pure all-girl team got laughed at; then they won the whole competition,” Olson said.
While grant funding for these programs has stopped in recent years, it hasn’t dampened Olson’s passion to teach and promote science studies for all of her students. That passion recently earned Olson prestigious recognition as this year’s Air Force Association (AFA) Teacher of the Year in California.
Each year the AFA recognizes teachers who inspire student interest in math and science, and Olson was nominated by an AFA member who was inspired by her work away from high school as an official ham radio instructor. Olson was presented with the award at an event at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the Central California coast.
“I was humbled by the award. After all these years, it’s nice to be recognized, especially from the technical standpoint. It’s truly a great honor,” said Olson.
What also makes Olson proud is she knows that eight of her female students over the years have gone on to become doctors. She’s hoping that number grows as she continues to promote science one class and student at a time.
Dan Francisco is managing partner in an El Dorado Hills-based business management firm specializing in sales, marketing and engineering.