Heidi Olinger is a writer, journalist, and nonprofit leader. She’s also an award-winning educator who creates STEAM service learning to inspire and prepare girls to innovate, problem-solve, and lead in the 21st century. What’s STEAM? Science, tech, engineering, art + design, and math.
Her latest book, Leonardo’s Science Workshop: Invent, Create, and Make STEAM Projects Like a Genius (Rockport Publishers) is an interactive adventure that embraces the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci to bring science, art, and creativity to life. Written with an inimitable combination of clarity and belief in the genius of every young reader, Leonardo’s Science Workshop models the curiosity and problem-solving that made Leonardo a genius and Heidi a voice for STEAM that is accessible, alive, and respects young people where they are. The New York Journal of Books says Leonardo’s Science Workshop “would make an excellent resource for teachers looking for multidisciplinary lesson plans with an emphasis on the pure sciences and technology.”
Heidi is the founder of Pretty Brainy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization through which girls are gaining the learning and empowerment to form companies, take risks, teach technology to younger students, win full-ride scholarships to colleges of their choice, and use STEAM to improve life for others. She is the co-founder, with members of Pretty Brainy’s girl leadership team, of MISSion Innovation, the first all-woman innovation marathon for climate action.
Heidi delivers keynotes and workshops based on her 30 years of experience with what works in learning for students underserved and underrepresented in K-12 and higher education. She has been honored to present at HP, the International Society for Technology in Education, the Noyce Scholars Program, Colorado Arts Education Association, the National Charity League, National Council of Teachers of English, and others. Her TEDx Talk delves into girls overcoming stereotypes and discovering the value of science and math and she is a frequent speaker on girls excelling in service learning and building a STEM mindset.
Heidi has been on the faculty at Colorado State University where she has taught in the Professional Science Master’s Program in the Department of Biology. She also has taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder and has been an instructor with the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps® for Learning.
She was honored as the 2017 Woman of Inspiration by Colorado Women of Influence and, for teaching excellence, by the Boettcher Foundation, an honor whose winners are chosen by the students who are Boettcher scholars.
Her education includes degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Colorado at Boulder and post-graduate work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Future of Learning Institute at Project Zero.
She lives in Colorado in an historic arts town with her family and rescue dog, Patches.
I’m Heidi Olinger. I’m Part of a Great Community of Innovators.
Just Ask a Girl
In late 2008 I launched Pretty Brainy, which today is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit through which girls use STEAM to address community dilemmas. (STEAM is an acronym for science, tech, engineering, art + design, and math.)
In the early days people would ask, “What’s STEM?” Coming from those outside of K-12 and higher education, it was a reasonable question. Then corporations, government agencies, and even educators started asking, “Why aren’t there more girls in STEM?” And I thought, “Are you kidding? Ask any 7th grade girl.”
I trust the ideas and brainpower of young people. In creating STEAM learning that serves the community, I may have an idea of project outcomes, but I won’t share it with the young people in a given program because I want to see what they invent, with nothing but blue skies above. They always have strong ideas that lead to more innovative outcomes than I had imagined. They own the work and its results. They are empowered. A high school senior recently wrote to thank me for such an experience, closing with, “You’re so awesome and so badass.” It’s the best compliment I could have received.
Go Make Mistakes
Go make mistakes is my message for young people, whether they are in grade 4 or grad school. Challenge and failure are necessary for growth. They are where authentic learning happens. When young people have a space in which it’s safe to make mistakes, experimentation and failure become a gift because they allow for the experiences that build strength and resilience, character and competence.
Girls, on whom ridiculous expectations of perfectionism are heaped, have the chance to band with their besties and say enough. I’d love to see that. Let perfectionism be recognized for the authority it has over girls’ lives and let girls throw off that authority. Let prototyping replace perfectionism. Let young people explore, experiment, question, make mistakes, try again, keep going, and make tremendous gains thanks to the process.
I believe in second chances, and my little dog, Patches, is living proof of the rewards of taking a chance and practicing patience. Before I adopted him, Patch was found caked with mud, confused, and spinning in circles in a ditch in Oklahoma. His optic nerve had been severed, likely from a blow to the head. He had complete vision loss in both eyes. A great rescue organization brought Patch to Colorado for rehoming. But consider the animal who is blind, senior, and recovering from trauma — this isn’t the dog most likely to be picked for quick adoption. It is my good luck that he was passed over many times.
Patches is the best companion because all he asks for is a simple exchange of love. He is a Shih Tzu, bred to be a lapdog, and in asking for love, he bestows it without limit. He makes his way through life and the living room by moving with care and he gains confidence through exploration — nose to the Earth in the parks and fields near home. Each step is an unknown, but he keeps moving forward. He is brave and true.
Reluctance and Luck
It is a privilege to teach other people’s children.
My father convinced me that teaching is honorable work, but 30 years ago I needed a heart-to-heart with Dad to hold a vision of teaching that outstripped my experiences in elementary and high school. The word teacher represented some of the teachers of my elementary school years in rural Ohio, and I did not want to share a profession with them. Of a school with six grades, my experience was that one-half of the teachers were kind and endeavored to help children learn. The other half physically and emotionally abused children and stalled learning.
Through reflection on the past and practice in the present, I distinguish teaching from learning. I am here to champion learning and the learning process. I owe the development of my perspective to thought leaders who include Lisa Delpit and Paulo Freire.
I am lucky to have had the privilege of working with so many great students.
“Do You Like Your Job?”
I ask people this question everywhere I go. I ask the store clerk ringing up my groceries. I ask the nurse taking my temperature, the delivery guy in the elevator, the woman selling books, the doctor new to the practice. I care about the answers. I also care if people are asking themselves the question. As educator and civil rights leader Howard Thurman wrote, “Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Medical professionals tell me they love their work. And that’s what I wish for every young person: to have the opportunity to gain the breadth of experience to uncover what they love to do. And then to pursue it because it is their choice, never to be undone by the limited thinking of others.
Be Forever Curious
“Do you like your job?” Only one person has ever turned the question back on me.
I love what I do. I love that, even after extensive drafting, I don’t know what will end up on the page until I write. Meaning is uncovered through writing. I love speaking to groups about what I have discovered.
I also love the work of creating STEAM learning through which girls serve the community and discover, like Leonardo, their own genius.
I have made a living by asking questions, whether interviewing subjects, pushing my students to critically think, or asking what would make a difference for young people underrepresented in STEM.
I am forever curious. And forever lucky.
Thank you for sharing the experience with me.