MOSI Spurring Love of Science Through Innovation and Awards

It’sthe largest children’s science center in the nation, but when students – no matter what age – step into the Tampa, Fla.-based Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), they will be able to learn if they embrace one cardinal rule.

“They have to have fun,” said Alicia Slater- Haase, MOSI’s senior vice president for marketing and development. “MOSI is a fun place, and everything is hands-on. Nobody comes to MOSI simply to learn; they come to MOSI to have fun, and the learning happens while you are here.”

Now in its 53rd year, MOSI is a nonprofit, community-based institution focused on fostering a greater awareness and understanding of science and industry. MOSI, at its current location on 74 acres in North Tampa since 1980, provides public programs and exhibits, and includes a 190,000-square-foot science center with Florida’s only IMAX Dome Theatre, extensive permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, a welcome center, planetarium, nature center, classroom space and a public library.

A key ingredient of its mission is making science tangible for youth, and particularly for Hispanic and African-American youngsters and teenagers. That goal is the outgrowth of longstanding ethnic disparities among students attaining higher education degrees, and particularly those who pursue careers in science and engineering.

Aware of this ethnic divide, in 2009 President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate initiative aimed at bolstering participation of the nation’s students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or what is commonly referred to as STEM. The initiative more specifically was geared toward equalizing the playing field for traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Hispanics.

Traditionally, Hispanics, as with women and African-Americans, have held few jobs in STEM fields in the country. A Bayer Facts of Science Education report issued last year, for instance, found that more than three-quarters of those it polled say significant numbers of female and underrepresented minorities were absent from the U.S. STEM work force because they were not identified, encouraged or nurtured to pursue STEM studies early on. Additionally, nearly twothirds believed that such underrepresentation by women and minorities in STEM threatens the nation’s global competitiveness.

Factors connected to the underrepresentation involved larger socioeconomic issues. The survey found that a lack of quality science and math education programs in poorer school districts, stereotypes about female and minority involvement, financial issues and a lack of communication to attract such groups all contributed to the low involvement.

Coupled with this have been lower graduation rates and other trends exposing wider gaps between White and Hispanic enrollments on higher education campuses.

Those numbers are a driving force behind MOSI’s annual awards that celebrate accomplishments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by Hispanic professionals. For the last 10 years, MOSI has conferred the Hispanic Scientist of the Year Award on accomplished Hispanic leaders in their fields, recognizing outstanding national Hispanic scientists who promote a greater public understanding of science and motivate Hispanic youths’ interest in science.

“The goal of the awards is to inspire students to stay in school, get an education and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Slater-Haase said. “We need to stay competitive with the rest of the world, and we need our students to receive an education in those careers. Students need to stay in school and get an education to be successful in their lives.”

“Hispanic students need mentors and role models to inspire them to stay in school, and this program is providing that,” Slater-Haase added. “They are seeing outstanding Hispanic role models who are sending them the message that ‘if I can do it, you can do it, too.’”

2010 MOSI Awardees

En 2010, MOSI honored Dr. Dan Arvizu, one of the world’s leading experts on renewable energy. Arvizu currently serves as the director and chief executive of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the department’s primary location for energy efficiency and renewable energy research and development.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Arvizu is the first and only Hispanic ever to become a
director of a national lab in the United States. In 2004, President George W. Bush appointed Arvizu to a six-year term on the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation and the national science policy advisory body to the president and Congress. He testified before Congress four times, delivered state-of-technology presentations at three congressional caucus briefings, and keynoted 12 major national and international conferences.

“The technologies being developed at NREL are the future of energy in this nation and around the world. It’s an honor to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this award by hosting a Hispanic leader at the forefront of that research,” MOSI’s president, Wit Ostrenko, said in a statement.

“Dr. Arvizu has been key in promoting a greater public understanding of renewable energy resources and serves as an inspiration to today’s youth, who are growing up at a time when these energy solutions are most important.”

Arvizu joined a prestigious roster of accomplished Hispanic leaders who not only received the award, but paid it forward by mentoring youth:

2009: Dr. Nils Díaz, former chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Díaz is from Cuba. He was a nuclear engineering professor and chairman at the University of Florida.

2008: Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a molecular biologist and CEO of Cytonome Inc., a company that was building the first optical cell sorter of human cells for therapeutic use, as well as a founding member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. She is Mexican-American. During her more than 20-year research career, Villa- Komaroff held positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts Medical School and Harvard Medical School.

2007: Dr. Louis A. Martin-Vega, dean of engineering at North Carolina State University, and of Puerto Rican descent. He was the first Hispanic to serve as acting head of the Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation and director of its Division of Design, Manufacture and Industrial Innovation.

2006: Dr. Inés Cifuentes, a seismologist from England, Ecuador and America. Cifuentes helped establish the Carnegie Academy of Science Education, which trains teachers in science, mathematics and technology, and served as its director for 10 years. In 2005, she became manager of education and career services of the American Geophysical Union. 

2005: Dr. Edmond Yunis, professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Department of Cancer Immunology and AIDS at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Yunis, a renowned researcher and immunologist, is from Colombia.

2004: Dr. Antonia Coello Novello, first woman and first Hispanic to serve as U.S. surgeon general, from 1990 to 1993. Novello, who had been a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commission, was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.

2003: Dr. Mario Molina, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in elucidating the threat to the Earth’s ozone layer of chlorofluorocarbon gases. The Nobelist is from Mexico, and one of the world’s leading authorities on pollution and the effects of chemical pollution on the environment. He is a faculty member at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California-San Diego.

2002: Fernando “Frank” Caldeiro, NASA astronaut born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From 1985-88, Caldeiro worked as a test director during the production and flight test of the Rockwell/USAF B-1B Bomber and was then transferred by Rockwell to the Kennedy Space Center as a space shuttle main propulsion system specialist. NASA hired him in 1991 as a cryogenics and propulsion systems expert for the safety and mission assurance office. NASA selected him as an astronaut candidate in 1996. He passed away in 2009.

2001: Dr. Alejandro Acevedo- Gutiérrez, marine biologist who conducts research on the behavioral ecology of marine vertebrates, was raised in Mexico City. He was featured in the movie Dolphins. He currently is an associate professor at Western Washington University. Novello conceded that she was initially unfamiliar with the award and its importance when she was first selected as an honoree. But she noted, “MOSI’s president was so convincing, and made it sound like a loss if I was unable to attend. When I learned there had been a Nobel Laureate, a NASA astronaut, and a marine biologist who had won before, I knew I had better show up!”

Proceeds from the awards gala, held each October, fund scholarships that will employ Hispanic teenagers involved in the program. As part of their agreement to give back, National Hispanic Scientist of the Year honorees take part in Meet The Scientist Day, an annual event in which honorees deliver inspiring lectures and meet with hundreds of students, many from underserved communities in neighborhoods near MOSI.

For Novello, that engagement made MOSI’s recognition even more poignant. Novello, who also served as commissioner of health for New York state, has since encountered a number of the attendees later in life, and was moved by the fact that many received scholarships and pursued education in science or technology.

“I remember looking at all of the faces and thinking ‘my goodness,’” Novello said, recalling
her remarks to three groups of students, about 1,200 in total. “You are supposed to tell them about your life, what you accomplished, where you came from, and more than anything make them understand that despite poverty and isolation, or not having parents with the highest education, that you can be somebody.

“I told them, ‘You have to have good grades, you have to have consistency, you have to respect your parents and your teachers, and give more than what is expected of you,’” she said. Spurring student interest in the field – and in continuing their education – was crucial, Novello said, given that the Hispanic population has been steadily growing, yet Hispanic involvement in higher education has lagged behind that of other groups.

As she addressed students, her hope was that they would think, “‘I saw it, I tasted it, I know I can do it.’ Maybe that is why I do this so often. As much   as the kids learn from each person, so do we.”

“I believe that if you are taught well, you will always want to give back,” Novello said. “The MOSI board is continually making this the best event every year, and I am in awe of who they find. The moment that is the biggest is not in getting the award or meeting the professionals, but it is the faces of the children, that some of these children will later come up to me and say, ‘remember me?’”

In the audience at these events are often students involved with a successful MOSI program called Youth Enriched by Science, or, the YES! Team. Started nearly two decades ago, the YES! Team is a career and educational enrichment program designed to help at-risk 13- to 17-yearold students (in seventh through 12th grade) by providing tiered mentoring and career-ladder and vocational training to give students a chance to develop self-confidence and build self-esteem, communication and leadership skills.

Vivian McIlrath, a Yes! Team graduate, did more than benefit from its services. She returned to MOSI to serve as its youth programs coordinator. McIlrath, the oldest sibling in a Hispanic family, said she only enrolled in the program as a 14-year-old to keep an eye on her brother, who clamored to be part of it.

The tables turned, though. Her brother moved on to other endeavors, and her experience with the Yes! Team prompted her shyness to wane and self-confidence to build. She not only became excited about public speaking, but then successfully pursued a college degree in communications at the University of South Florida.

“I had so much fun in the program,” she recalled. “It built up my confidence. I had very little to none, and my self-esteem was just shot. When I joined, I was finishing up middle school, where I was not involved at all, and then I became super-involved in high school.”

About 75 percent of the Yes! Team students are Hispanic. Now as she works with the Yes! Team’s current group of 15 students, she communicates at their level, understanding the distractions from mass media, new technology and peer pressure.

“The biggest challenge has to be fighting the stereotype that if you are going to a science museum you are a geek or a nerd,” said McIlrath, whose team meets on weekends and all summer long.

MOSI leaders note that 90 percent of the students involved with the YES! Team move up to college, and 87 percent become mentors to new team members. And even more encouraging, nearly 82 percent of the team members pursue careers in math and science. 

Of the current group, McIlrath said, three have expressed desires to become engineers; four want to become doctors; and another, a physicist.

MOSI

That’s the career trajectory that MOSI hopes to spur, and could possibly even lead to a Yes! Team graduate under consideration for a National Hispanic Scientist of the Year award down the road.

“We look for engineers and scientists who have had pretty notable careers and have been involved in education in their careers in some way,” Slater-Haase said. The honorees “have done volunteer work and recognize the value of education.”

So, for instance, the most recent honoree, Arvizu, has devoted considerable attention to engaging with students to heighten their interest. “He often works with student groups and stresses the importance of getting a career in science,” Slater-Haase said.

The ceremonies haven grown in size and stature over the last decade, attracting more attendees interested in celebrating the accomplishments of Hispanics in the field.

Additionally, the number of nominations coming in from across the nation continues to escalate each year. “The number of nominees in the beginning was not a large number,” she said of the open nomination process. “This year, we have close to 20 people who were nominated. Anybody is welcome to nominate a candidate for the award, and we have a committee that reviews those nominations.”

Slater-Haase was attending ceremonies even before she started at MOSI four years ago.

“To me, as a scientist and someone who is passionate about education, having an opportunity to meet these people was worth it,” she said. “I’m not into movie stars; I’m into scientists and engineers.”