In an age when parents everywhere are trying to get their kids more excited about STEM topics—that’s science, technology, engineering and math —Oklahoma City mom Tiffany Neill is doing just that at home and in the classroom.
The 35-year-old Vinita native is the director of science education for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. She approaches science education by calling on her memories of what got her interested in science as a young girl, as well as what gets her 11-year-old son excited about STEM-related studies.
“Lifelong learning,” Tiffany said. “If I could say anything to parents, it’s to model that for your kids.”
For parents whose kids are interested in a future with a STEM field, Tiffany recommends starting out by encouraging curiosity and inspecting the world around them.
“A student pursuing a career in STEM will forever find opportunities in front of them,” she said. “ You never know where that path is going to lead you. Going into this profession has changed my life forever.”
Tiffany is passionate about education. Throughout her career as a student, teacher and in her current role supporting teachers in the state education system, Tiffany exudes an infectious enthusiasm for learning and teaching. Science first enticed her when she was in high school and her biology teacher encouraged her to get involved with the school’s environmental club.
As the club’s president, she had the opportunity to attend the Environmental Expo in Tulsa. Jane Goodall, a scientist renowned for her work with chimps in Tanzania, was the featured speaker at the event. By chance, Tiffany found herself seated in a session next to Dr. Goodall.
“Being very shy, I was just so nervous, but somehow I garnered some courage and began speaking to her,” Tiffany said. “It truly inspired me to continue on a path in science.”
Their initial conversation led to a lunch date and further discussion that pushed her to start studying science. She’s never looked back. After graduating from Vinita High School, she pursued a degree in biology and thought she would follow a career path in research. After taking time off when her son was born, she began teaching and later moved to Norman to teach and obtain her master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma. Today, she’s in the university’s doctoral program and teaches one class each semester on campus.
Tiffany has a lot of experience instructing students in the classroom, but her current position focuses on assisting teachers. Her job as the director of Science and Health Education, which she has had for about three years, aims to help teachers bring science to students grades K through 12 throughout the entire state. She implements this through professional development programs for teachers, teacher workshops and providing networking opportunities for teachers to connect with one another.
She also works to help teachers avail themselves to the vast amount of science educational opportunities that exist in our state outside the traditional classroom setting.
“I can recall the enthusiasm I had with students as I watched them discover that they could do things that they didn’t think they could do, or that they could discover something in science as if it had never happened before for anyone else,” she said. “I found that many of our teachers could have that same experience through professional development and mentoring, so it became a very strong passion of mine to support and advocate for science teachers.”
Though based in Oklahoma City, Tiffany’s job often requires travel throughout the state. Over the past year, she’s hosted 18 two-day teacher workshops around the state, each attended by about 100 teachers.
Tiffany’s passion for teaching science does not stop at the office. At home, her 11-year-old son, Nate, shares her love for science.
“Nate looks at the world around him and he’s always wanting to know why something happens,” she said. “I just do whatever I can to get him to think about what it is that is going on in that situation or with that phenomenon.”
She and Nate have many learning moments together. Tiffany likes to ask questions of Nate that foster his own inquisitiveness and spark discussions of science in every day life, even through hobbies.
“The great thing about science,” she said, “is that it happens all around us.”
To see a Q&A with Tiffany, please pick up a copy of our March issue or read the digital issue.