Full STEAM Ahead!
In August, VSU welcomed Chantel Wilson, Ph.D., who joined Cooperative Extension as the Extension specialist/STEAM educator. STEAM in this instance stands for science, technology, engineering, agriculture and math. “Programs such as 4-H can have a tremendously positive influence on the lives of young people,” Wilson said. In high school Wilson belonged to Future Farmers of America (FFA), an organization she enjoyed. “I believe that my participation in FFA helped me to develop career aspirations and the skills needed for my success, eventually leading me to become the first person in my family to graduate from college,” she said.
Wilson, who earned a Ph.D. in crop and soil environmental sciences from Virginia Tech, an M.S. in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a B.A. in biology from Hood College, loves science and nature and is eager to get youth excited about both. “I think a lot of kids are getting disconnected, especially with the natural world and the environment. That concerns me,” she said. “I want to work with kids to try to increase their scientific literacy, their regard for the environment and science, and prepare them for a changing world.” She cited grass as a simple example of a plant that most kids take for granted—most don’t likely realize how grass is essential for water quality, food supply, habitat, landscaping and aesthetics.
Drawing on her diverse background, which includes work in aquatic ecology, biology, plant pathology, turfgrass science and toxicology/non-clinical safety assessment, Wilson will collaborate with Extension agents to design and deliver programs that will get kids excited about STEAM and educate them about many career options available. She will also work with agents and stakeholders to assess community needs and determine the skills youth need for success in STEAM fields. “I hope to channel my creativity and passion to develop fun, informative and useful programming based on current research,” she said. “I’m excited for the chance to give back by developing programming to help prepare young people for success.”
Although she’s just getting started, Wilson is already exploring working with Virginia Master Naturalists to create Junior Master Naturalist chapters because students could benefit from its mission and from volunteerism. She hopes to get kids interested in volunteering for the sake of building a better world. Finding a way to connect with kids is key, which entails knowing one’s audience, their interests and having a good facilitator who can engage them. Although she hasn’t yet worked with kids in a formal capacity, Wilson understands that connecting with kids by talking to them and working with them is essential. She gave an example of digging fossils out of a spoils pile with her fiancé at the Aurora Fossil Museum in North Carolina. That day, some elementary school students were also visiting the museum and looking for fossils in the spoils pile. “My fiancé told some kids, ‘Oh, you know, she’s a scientist,’ and then boom! A lot of kids started coming over, asking me questions and getting involved,”she said. “If you’re interested in the same things kids are, it’s so much easier, and it comes naturally. It’s not really a job at that point. It’s just sharing what you love.”