Behind the Science: An Interview With Our Head of Youth STEM Pathways

July 11, 2024
Emily Weiss, head of youth STEM pathways

Emily Weiss

Head of Youth STEM Pathways

From Massachusetts

Emily has worked at The Lawrence for over 18 years, since 2006

Q: What do you do at The Lawrence?

A: I have worn (and continue to wear) a lot of different hats at The Lawrence—curriculum development, leading and designing professional learning experiences, designing and leading STEM programs for youth, and designing and teaching undergraduate courses. My primary role now is developing and overseeing a portfolio of teen research and STEM pathways experiences. I really love my current work!

The Outdoor Nature Lab
The Outdoor Nature Lab at The Lawrence

Q: What is your favorite exhibit at The Lawrence, and why?

A: I definitely enjoy sitting in the Outdoor Nature Lab or in Forces that Shape the Bay. I like being in nature, and the views are incredible. I’m also excited about our new interactive planetarium and Science on a Sphere. When I come with my parent hat on (I have two kids), I love Design Quest and the Well Played exhibit (I was one of the lead designers for this exhibit, which was really fun!).

Q: Describe your path to science/education:

A: I had wanted to be a marine biologist since I was eight years old based on an obsession with a shark book my parents gave me and a lot of time watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I had a few memorable marine science experiences as a kid, from a family friend taking me to her lab to dissect a shark to participating in a dolphin feeding behavior study through Earthwatch in Costa Rica as a teen. 

Meanwhile, I also really liked working with kids and often worked as a camp counselor during the summer throughout high school and college. This passion for working with kids led me to volunteer in schools as a college student, and my first assignment was to work with a struggling reader in second grade. It soon became clear that this struggling reader needed more expert support than I could provide, and that the system wasn’t set up to provide it. I became fascinated with public policy, education reform, cognitive science, and how people learn to read.

After college, I went to graduate school for education and focused on literacy instruction. I ended up working as a middle school reading specialist for a few years and supporting a state-wide literacy professional learning initiative, but I couldn’t shake my passion for the ocean. Eventually, I realized I still wanted to be a marine biologist, so I went back to graduate school for marine biology. And, of course, while I was there, I missed teaching.

When I finished graduate school, I realized I needed to find a way to combine my passion for working with kids with my love of marine biology. The Lawrence’s MARE (Marine Activities, Resources, and Education) program was an incredible place to do both. At the time, MARE was working at the cutting edge of science and literacy convergence, and the focus was the ocean! It was such a perfect fit.

Over the years, I’ve built on those early experiences and focused on a few key areas. I still develop and run STEM programs for youth, focusing on those with limited access to such experiences. I apply what I understand about how people learn, how to build a sense of belonging in STEM, and how to support youth in seeing themselves and having others see them as science people to contexts that influence the next generation of STEM professionals and decision-makers.

Q: What was your first aha moment at The Lawrence?

Emily Weiss presenting to a group of teen scientists in the Climate Ambassadors Program
Emily Weiss presents to a group of teen scientists as part of our Climate Ambassadors Program

A: If I had a good idea and found other people with complementary skill sets and passions, we could work together and find ways to make that idea happen—and improve on the idea together!

It wasn’t so much a realization about the power of collaboration—I’ve been lucky to know a lot of creative, smart, and passionate people. I think it was the realization that we could write a grant proposal and ask for money to make the thing happen, and sometimes we’d get that money and could really do the thing! Also, we could make the idea even better if we included the people who would participate in what we were creating in the design from the beginning.

I remember getting my first grant funded and being so excited as it came to life. A big part of that grant was developing a youth program for middle school students in partnership with a school in Oakland. There was a subset of teens who were super engaged in the program and participated in every experience offered. As they started to age out, they told me they wanted to keep going, and I realized we could make that happen together. The next grant I wrote was with those teens. They co-designed a program with me, and then they got to participate in it when it was funded. I’m still in touch with a lot of those kids (well, they’re not kids anymore). The work we did together has informed all of my future work with youth.

Q: If you could be any animal, real or imaginary, which would you be and why?

A: I would for sure be an octopus! First, I LOVE cephalopods. But mostly I am so curious about what goes on in the mind of an octopus. We’re so evolutionarily different, yet some of the ways in which octopuses are smart or express themselves feel familiar (like problem-solving to get to an item you want or your skin changing color based on your emotions—we blush or go pale). But what is it like to taste with your arms? And what is important to an octopus? 

Q: What would you say if you could give your childhood self one piece of advice?

A: All that stuff you like to do will come together someday. It’s okay to be all over the place and try all the things. Each new experience leads to another new experience, person, or idea, and that’s pretty exciting!

Q: Do you have an unrealized project you want to talk about?

A: I want to create a robust STEM ecosystem for teens—something that supports them in finding and pursuing complementary experiences and making connections between them so each teen can create their unique STEM pathway. I would love for this to happen across teen experiences at The Lawrence and across the range of amazing STEM opportunities for youth throughout the Bay Area.

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