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Samantha Wynns: Inspiring the Next Generation of STEAM Enthusiasts

Samantha Wynns
Samantha Wynns. Photo credit: IF/THEN® Collection.

What do dinosaurs, human history, space, fuzzy creatures, earthquakes, and lizards have in common? What real science principles went into creating the fictional character Spider-Man and how many universes do scientists theorize may exist?

Fun and thought-provoking questions like these were explored in panels this past July at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Other panels covered topics such as promoting diversity in STEM and scientific innovations that have crossed over from imagination to reality and what may be on the horizon.

“There is a lot of crossover between STEM and the popular arts,” says AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador® Samantha Wynns. With a background as a conservation biologist and science educator, she came up with the brilliant idea to have the program take part in Comic-Con for the first time. “Science fiction and fantasy include a lot of scientific principles, so it just seemed like the perfect marriage of the two,” notes Wynns. “Bringing the sci-fi community together with my scientific community was just so much fun and seeing them merge and build upon and uplift each other was delightful.”

Additionally, during the convention, she and other AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors hosted a STEAM pop-up fair and other activities at the Comic-Con Museum designed to entertain, inform, engage, and inspire children — especially girls — to get involved in science, tech, engineering, art and math.

The event, which was attended by about 2,000 people, was a big hit. “There were kids from various summer camps and families — it just was wonderful to see them light up and get inspired and excited,” she says.

Adding some playfulness, Wynns and other ambassadors dressed up in colorful costumes. Wynns, who says her red hair and enthusiasm for science education often elicit comparisons to Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus TV series, chose to go as that character while another ambassador, Sydney Hamilton dressed as Shuri from Black Panther one day and the real-life heroine and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson the next. “Cosplay can make science more approachable and more fun!” She’d known since she was a child that she wanted to be a scientist, describing herself as a “longtime geek and fangirl who loves pop culture, science fiction, fantasy and gaming.”

The inspiring and uplifting events featured as many as 16 ambassadors from all over the country representing disciplines including biology, computer science, machine learning, physics, and math. Wynns notes participants were able to get to know each other better, learn from each other, and strengthen their IF/THEN® sisterhood bond. “We are all very different women from each other, from very different fields, but we have the same values,” she notes. “We are passionate about STEM education, giving back to our communities, and inspiring the next generation.”

Being an IF/THEN® Ambassador has helped Wynns grow both professionally and personally, giving her the opportunity to become more comfortable with public speaking and strengthening her science communication skills. The best part has been receiving overwhelming support from the IF/THEN® network. “Never have I felt so valued — they have my back, and I feel like I can accomplish anything.”

For Wynns, that support system is something that is deeply meaningful to her, especially as an older early-career scientist who left school in her twenties to care for her mother who was terminally ill with cancer. With her father working for the Yellowstone National Park concessionaire, she had the fortunate experience of growing up with Yellowstone as her back yard. When she went back to school in her thirties, she says, “I knew what I wanted to do was lend my efforts to solving some of the world’s greatest problems, specifically biodiversity loss and climate change.”

Currently, she runs EcoLogik, a free two-week STEM summer camp for girls ages nine through sixteen at the Cabrillo National Monument. In addition to serving as director of the summer program, Wynns also does science work such as conducting various wildlife surveys, building scientific exhibits, delivering public talks and hands-on learning to 10,000 schoolkids per year through field trips. She assists with science communications, such as Cabrillo’s social media campaigns, as well.

According to Wynns, the most rewarding aspect of her work is seeing the impact it has on kids. She recalls an interaction with a young girl who was so inspired by an EcoLogik presentation Wynns gave on how reptiles and amphibians are monitored at Cabrillo that she declared she wanted to be a herpetologist when she grew up. “Connecting with kids on that level and knowing that you’ve lit a spark is just so rewarding, especially since there’s still a gap when it comes to gender equity in STEM,” explains Wynns. “We’re not going to solve the world’s biggest problems like biodiversity loss and climate change without having unique voices at the table.”

The camp also offers older students the opportunity to mentor younger students. “So, it’s a continuum of mentorship—we have women in STEM mentoring the campers, we invite back girls who are alumni to be camp counselors, and there’s the older students mentoring the younger students.” Wynns wants to offer not only STEM education and mentorship, but also life mentorship and leadership courses that encourage girls to think about things like what it means to be a leader and what they will need for college and job applications and beyond.

Wynns is focused on expanding EcoLogik to other National Parks around the country. She notes that girls tend to lose their interest in science around middle school, when they start to feel actively discouraged or excluded. She also hopes to offer girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds the support they need to become scientists. “It's my vision to grow the project, not only more summer camps at Cabrillo, but to bring it to every national park and to create a leadership academy,” declares Wynns. “Inspiration is not enough if they don’t have the tools that they need to succeed.