Allison Wheeler in the field

Above photo: ISP Fellow Allison Wheeler in a soil pit taking VR photos for a STEAM digital curriculum.

ISP Fellow Allison Wheeler is working with the Department of Innovation and Technology Education Group to provide accessible resources in STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) for students, educators, and their families to close the digital divide. Visit www.illinois.gov/doit-steam  to learn more.

Allison is also working with 4-H Assistant Dean and Director, Lisa Bouillion Diaz, on projects to incorporate 3D imagery and drone technology into 4-H STEM programs.

I caught up with Allison so she could share her story in her own words:

Why did you apply for the Illini Science Policy Program?
At the beginning of my last semester as a graduate student, the associate director of my department mentioned this opportunity to me, knowing that I had an intent of entering the public service and policy career path. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to apply after reading the description, seeing the variety of potential host institutions, and seeing that it would be a great post-grad opportunity that would kick-start this career path in the public sector while keeping my familiarity with the University of Illinois. I knew I had the potential to do some awesome work for the public in any of these agencies that would make a positive impact for Illinoisans and that’s exactly what I’m doing now!

Tell us a bit about what you hope to do as a result of being a fellow?
I hope to expand my knowledge on working in the public sector for Illinois overall and gain a working understanding of state agency operation. More than that though, I have been given the opportunity to work with an agency and in a field I would not have necessarily tried had it not been for this fellowship. Working with the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) STEAM education group, I am learning about the state of Illinois K-12 and postsecondary education and the intersections of technology and equity in education Illinois, as well as access to opportunities in STEM/STEAM for all Illinois students. I hope that through my time with DoIT, I will have contributed to making access to STEAM education and jobs more equitable for Illinois students and educators.

Describe how you and your host determined what project(s) you would work on?
The projects that I am working on at DoIT were determined very easily on the outset of my start date with the fellowship. I am working with a project-oriented host, DoIT Group CIO for Education Mary Reynolds, who was eager to get me involved with a STEAM education-oriented virtual reality curriculum initiative. This project calls for a great deal of collaboration between other agencies and institutions and I knew when Mary mentioned it to me that I had to jump on this with her. This project has brought me a great deal of networking skills and added to my knowledge base of STEAM education and cutting edge technology that can be used in classrooms. Also, as an ongoing base project, I help with maintaining the DoIT STEAM website, which inspired me to create a monthly STEAM newsletter for Illinois educators to give them STEAM news, events, and resources and give my agency a more regular connection with our target audiences.

What is one thing you learned from your host mentor so far?
In the few months that I’ve been working with Mary, I have learned invaluable pieces of information that could only be gained from all the years and diversity in experience she has had in state government. If I just had to pick one thing, though, is that you have to be bold and go out on a limb every once in a while, with ambitious ideas in order to accomplish necessary and innovative change to make lasting positive impacts on our communities.

Why is your issue important?
Promoting opportunities in STEAM education in Illinois has ubiquitous impacts within our state. Our economy is rapidly becoming more reliant on careers in, or that rely on the tech industry. As a state, we are already facing a job shortage in the area of computer science, for example. We are striving to make STEAM education and career paths more easily accessible for students all over our incredibly diverse state; meaning that we’re keeping those that have thus far been truly underrepresented in STEAM, such as Black and Latinx communities and women at the forefront of minds as we curate these resources and projects.

Who is impacted by the issue you are working on?
Perhaps this is a non-answer, but truly everyone in Illinois is affected by the opportunities to learn within STEAM, because it does concern everyone. Though the more direct answer would be Illinois students and teachers in STEAM subject areas. The impacts of COVID-19 on education has made that clearer than ever as we ask students to become pros at using computers and different types of software at such an early age in order to receive their education. It’s also clear that access and opportunity within STEAM education and career pipelines in K-12 and postsecondary is not equitable in Illinois or the U.S. overall. We’re doing our part to help make sure we help any and all Illinois residents can be a player in STEAM education and careers without barriers.

What is one thing you want people to know about this issue?
I want people to know that there’s no reason that being a part of the STEAM community should be exclusionary and inaccessible and there are so many rising efforts in place within the public and private sectors to make the STEAM community a place everyone can be a part of.

Describe how you and your host and Extension Mentor determined what project you would work on?
My Extension mentor, Lisa Bouillion Diaz, and I have had to be creative in the process of figuring out the Extension project which has honestly involved some trial and error. I am trying to poise my attention toward her field of working within Extension as the 4-H Assistant Dean and Director. She has connected me with wonderful resources that have helped me understand the role of 4-H in Illinois.

We wanted to figure out a project that could draw on one of the initiatives I’m working on with DoIT that could be translated to a resource for Illinois 4-H members that can live on past my time as an Illini Science Fellow and exist within the 4-H STEM initiatives. Thus, I am trying to curate a resource that introduces the concept of quantum computing to students that runs in parallel with the research funding from the U.S. Department of Energy that has been poured into Illinois research institutions like Argonne National Labs, Fermi Lab, and several Illinois universities in 2020 for efforts in quantum. While such an intimidating concept for us now, the K-12 students of today will be the ones working with this cutting-edge technology and we should be making scalable connections with them early on and in accessible ways like through 4-H resources and activities.

If you’ve had the chance to work with your Extension Mentor, what have you learned from them so far?
Lisa has taught me just how expansive the 4-H network is in Illinois and the diversity of opportunity it provides for students! I came into this Fellowship not knowing a great deal about Extension nor 4-H, but with working in the education group at DoIT, I’ve been challenged to find the intersections of where my projects at DoIT and the missions of 4-H can come together and creative ways to do so.

What is the most unexpected thing about this program so far?
I am most definitely kept on my toes with my position at DoIT and I’ve had so much exposure to other departments within the agency as well as within the industries we work with. On the outset, I anticipated having little interaction outside my small sector so to speak, but it couldn’t be more opposite. I engage with so many different, brilliant people and have been given the confidence by my host, Mary, to voice my ideas, opinions, and even start original mini-projects to curate on my own or in collaboration with her and others. Unexpected, yes, but I’ve learned to expect the unexpected in my role which keeps things interesting and gives me great experiences!

If you could do one thing through this program and think, “Wow, I did that,” what would it be?
I think my biggest goal for this program that would make me have that “wow” moment would be creating something that has a lasting impact past my time in the fellowship. We have several projects I’m taking on with Mary and a great team of teachers and members of industry that have the potential to make significant impacts on education resource access and that really makes me excited to think about. We have even more exciting opportunities on the horizon, like the 2021 Illinois State Fair that will need some real creativity and effort to plan out our initiatives given the uncertainty this year has brought us. I’m already engaging in a sector (STEM/STEAM) that I never really thought I could be an actor in, or never specifically intended to anyway, considering my educational background, but here I am. Wow, I’m doing this!

More information about the Illini Science Policy Program is available here.  Keep reading to learn more about Allison's colleagues in the inaugural class of 2020 ISP Fellows.