#PGHSTEM Spotlight: Dr. Stephanie Siler

Research psychologist, academic, cognitive tutor designer, STEM professional

Stephanie Siler

Dr. Stephanie Siler / Photo by Willy James

A Research Psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Stephanie Siler has worked for more than five years as a Researcher and Co-Principal Investigator helping to develop the TED (Training in Experimental Design) Tutor, a free, online computer tutor created for elementary and middle school students to increase their understanding of how to design properly controlled science experiments.  She is now helping to lead the development of the next iteration of the TED Tutor, called the ISP (Inquiry-based Science Project) Tutor which will continue to help students learn how to design properly controlled science experiments while choosing their very own experimental domain.

We sat down with Stephanie to learn how STEM has shaped her life as a researcher, academic, and lifelong learner.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Willy James: Can you tell us a little bit about your work?

Dr Stephanie Siler: I am currently working on a project called the ISP Tutor or Independent Science Project Tutor. We are developing computer software to support students who are doing independent science projects like for science fairs, which a lot of students in the area do. We had previously developed the TED Tutor to support students in learning how to design un-confounded or controlled science experiments.

Willy James: What was your STEM “a ha moment”?

Dr. Stephanie Siler: My STEM “a-ha” moment really was when were were kind of stumped at one point. We had found that some groups of students did really good with this instruction: over 80% of students in some schools had gained understanding of designing good experiments from the instruction. But other schools, maybe 20% of students had shown [this understanding]. So, we went into schools and we actually worked one-on-one with students in tutoring sessions. We recorded the sessions, transcribed the protocols, and analyzed stuff.

One of the major “a-ha” moments, I think, is when we did realize what they were really thinking. Because in tutoring, oftentimes, the tutor does probably too much of the talking. And it’s hard to put yourself in the place of the student but the key for us really, and I realized this then, is when you don’t quite understand why a student says something that doesn’t quite make sense. That’s really indicative that they have some kind of deeper misconception.

It’s like the blind person feeling parts of the elephant: they say certain things and you have to figure out what the holistic point of view that the student has. Now, since then, when I’m looking at student protocols, that occurs to me. With this specific thing this student says, what does that indicate their deeper understanding is that they’re not expressing fully?

Willy James: What has a career in STEM meant to you?

Dr. Stephanie Siler: STEM research has really been important to me my whole life. I remember my father at dinner time would talk about science. He didn’t have a degree in science: he went to a catholic school and his nonna had encouraged him to go into physics in college but he went a different direction and started his construction company. But he would talk about his understanding of science at the dinner table and would say things and would actually create (with his Pittsburgh accent) a lot of misconceptions in me. Like, he would talk about “cells” but with his accent it sounded like “sails”, so I would imagine little sail boats were in the body! Even though that happened, I guess that maybe actually instilled more of a curiosity in me. I always loved science and then I loved physics in high school and then I majored in physics as an undergraduate.

“STEM research has really been important to me my whole life.” – Stephanie Siler

Willy James: How does STEM show up in your everyday life?

Dr. Stephanie Siler: In every day life, it’s kind of obvious—at least, to me—that there are problems going on with climate change and with weather so drastic. I’m almost always aware of these problems. It’s a pressing issue and part of me feels like something must be done about this. What is my role, what can I best do? My sister does a lot of activism for anti-climate change.

For me, I want young people to have a good foundational understanding of science. Starting at the atomic molecular level so they can understand what’s happening; really understand it at the causal level. It doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen with our generation, but I’m hoping this younger generation will have better science education that makes it more likely one of these kids will come up with some solution to these major problems that we’re seeing at this point.

Willy James: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about STEM?

Dr. Stephanie Siler: I would say, really, the importance of students learning about science and engineering from an earlier age than is currently taught. I actually just got in contact with an author who did a 12-year longitudinal study where he looked at the effect of teaching 1st and 2nd graders basic concepts in science. He tracked those students and a control group of students through the end of high school. He found increasing differences between the two groups. So, when you have that earlier foundational understanding and you’re learning more, then that knowledge really builds up and develops through time.

I was talking to him this morning and he said that people didn’t previously think that kids were capable of understanding concepts that are not concrete. You can’t see them or feel them, but you have to imagine them. They thought they were too abstract for younger students to understand. But we often underestimate kids’ abilities. That’s a terrible thing to do and it does thwart a lot of potential learning and again, potential impact on our society.

Willy James: What’s one STEM experience/resource/book/program/event you’d recommend?

Dr. Stephanie Siler: That’s a really good question. I would say going to the American Educational Research Association conference. As a grad student, getting out and seeing what everyone’s doing is a very inspirational experience. You don’t even have to be in the field, I think most of their talks should be pretty accessible. That’s really where my source of inspiration was: going to conferences, seeing all the interesting work, and then trying to put that together.

Dr. Stephanie at work / Photo by Willy James

Dr. Stephanie at work / Photo by Willy James

Learn more about Dr. Siler and her work with TED Tutor at psy.cmu.edu/~tedtutor

This post is part of the #PghSTEM Spotlight, a project to lift up professionals who represent a more diverse and inclusive future for STEM careers.

Follow the links below to check out other spotlights in the collection.

Published May 28, 2019

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