Photo: Renee Rosensteel
Linda Ortenzo’s life is a study in left-brain-right-brain symmetry. After a youth spent fixed on a career in the performing arts, the girl who’d been singing and dancing since the age of 2 landed an academic scholarship to Ball State University, majoring in speech pathology and then public relations, a field she felt was better suited to her high-energy, results-oriented personality. Her early career would include voice-over and on-camera work, video production, PR for nonprofits, and a sales post for an educational products company. Then, 16 years ago, she responded to an ad for educational presenters at Carnegie Science Center. On stage once again, her natural curiosity and creativity would be sparked in brand new ways. Within six months—and brimming with “plenty of guts and a thirst for a challenge,” she says—Ortenzo was tapped to lead the team developing a new medical-themed traveling exhibition. Zap Surgery, which traveled the country for years espousing the wonders of non-invasive surgical procedures, still makes her smile like a proud parent.
Ortenzo would later be called on to oversee two of the Science Center’s most important community-based education programs—its Science Fair, the oldest in the country, and its SciTech Festival, originally an annual 10-day event that included the Science Fair and brought Pittsburgh companies together with area students to get kids thinking about careers in math and science (now a biannual event called SciTech Days). Today, she is director of the Science Center’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs, which reach no fewer than 10,000 middle- and high-school students a year. And on her days off, the accomplished soprano still indulges her passion for singing at Pittsburgh’s beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral as one of its highly regarded cantors.
What is the STEM movement all about?
It really started in the federal funding community about five years ago. It was inspired in large part by a report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm (Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future), which spoke to the kinds of work skills needed to succeed in the 21st-century economy and our country’s growing achievement gap in math and science. You could say that people have been talking about these things for a long time, but it finally had a name and a movement.
What’s new about the Science Center’s STEM initiatives?
The Science Center has always been about making science accessible and fun and relevant to all age groups. Our new Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development is all about those things, but its special focus is on showing young people what they can do with their lives, the skills they need to succeed, and the kinds of careers they could consider that they probably never even knew were there. It’s the vortex where we bring together businesses and teachers and students—and, ultimately, parents—with the goal of inspiring the next-generation workforce.
Isn’t that what happens at SciTech Days?
Yes! SciTech Days are like a panoramic view of the region in miniature. You look around at all of the exhibiting companies, side by side, the universities, and the students who get to participate in all kinds of hands-on workshops that they couldn’t do in the classroom—on topics such as tissue engineering and robotics, nanotechnology, the environment. There is so much energy when you watch the kids talking with the adults. It’s this duality of what you could do as a career but also what you need to know as a person living in the 21st century. How do you become an informed citizen?
The Science Center reaches out to girls in a special way. Why is that needed?
In most science-based fields, the ratio of women to men is dismal. In medicine, it’s nearly even, which is a good thing, and we find participation in our annual Science Fair just about even. But when you look at fields like computer science and some of the engineering fields, it’s a great concern. Companies really want a very diverse workforce. They tell us this. They know that the strongest workforce is a diverse one, and that they will be better and their products will be better with a diverse workforce.
You interact with so many students and teachers. Do any of their stories stand out?
A teacher at St. Bede’s School recently told us that she had a lower-achieving student who came to SciTech Days and just sparked. He was somebody who was never really interested in science before, and all of a sudden the light went on and he realized, ‘I like this, it does have relevance to me, this is fun, I can do these things.’
It’s similar to the story of another young boy, John Grayson, a C-average student in a McKeesport elementary school who attended a robotics workshop at SciTech Days. The challenge for that workshop was to learn a basic computer language called robotC, which Carnegie Mellon developed, and in 45 minutes program a robot to go through a maze successfully. John was paired up with a student he didn’t know from another school, and they accomplished the task in record time—about 20 minutes, which was just unheard of. Later on, when he and his teacher were returning on the bus, she asked him why he was so quiet. He said, ‘Well, you know Mrs. Jones, I didn’t know my brain worked that way.’ He’s since become part of his school’s Academy of Math and Science program, and he’s getting A’s in math and science.
What’s your dream now for the STEM programs?
I think the ideal would be that all of our stakeholders in the region would know what we do and would be involved and benefit. And that we will begin to solidify a national reputation for expertise in this area. We’re working on a public information campaign, and our goal is to see and hear more people talk about why science and technology and engineering careers are cool, and why they’re so important to the region.
So, how does the performer in you still find enjoyment in what you do?
Every time I stand before a group, whether it’s a group of funders or teachers or students, the performer is on. The skills are so related. You have to make it exciting.
The other important thing to note is that science is very creative. That’s why there’s so much discussion today about the overlap of science and the arts. If you’ve got a passion for creativity, you can find a place for yourself in the sciences.