Published: January 24, 2017
Pacific Oaks alumna Susan Wood lives her mission delivering science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum in early childhood education settings.
An aspiring elementary school teacher, Susan Wood was studying at a local city college in Pasadena when she saw a job posting that intrigued her. “Preschool teacher wanted. No experience preferred.”
It seemed almost too good to be true, but as it turned out, the director of the small, local preschool wanted to train a teacher “to do it the way she thought was right,” Wood explains.
And since she had long thought about a career working with young children, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get some hands-on training and experience while completing a degree. It was a decision she would never regret.
“I thought, ‘I really love this,’” says Wood, who was 21 when she landed the job. Juggling work and a young family, however, meant finding the time to take classes was limited. “I couldn’t go to a traditional college because I was working full time.”
Discovering Pacific Oaks College, which had exactly the kind of degree program she had been looking for, made her dream possible.
“My passion had always been how to plan curriculum for children,” Wood says. “The background in theory that Pacific Oaks gave me was mind changing. It was a very powerful experience for me.”
Inspired by the works of early childhood education pioneers Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Magda Gerber, Wood focused her studies at Pacific Oaks on how to plan meaningful curriculum for preschool-aged children.
“I had the privilege of being taught by Magda Gerber and mentored by Betty Jones, two early childhood education pioneers,” Wood says. “It was such a rich experience.”
While still enrolled at Pacific Oaks, Wood moved jobs from the small preschool to teaching 4-year-olds at UCLA Childcare Services. There, an opportunity arose that shifted her Pacific Oaks coursework in a new direction.
“I began working on a NASA-funded program to study how children learn science,” she says. “We started looking at the kind of opportunities that were needed on a preschool level, so I shifted my research to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education.”
As part of her role on the NASA project, Wood was asked to also train other teachers on how best to teach science to young children. She found the work so rewarding that she shifted away from getting a teaching credential at Pacific Oaks and instead decided to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood education, focused on how to train teachers to teach using the science method.
What Wood did not realize is that she had just landed on the cutting edge of a trend in higher education—the need to integrate more STEM disciplines into American curriculum.
A movement was born.
In 2000, Wood’s emerging STEM expertise landed her a job as executive director of The Children’s Center at Caltech, a nonprofit organization that provides early education for children ages 6 months to 6 years. In 2011, she helped launch a national Early Childhood STEM (ECSTEM) conference that now serves more than 600 attendees from more than 20 states and several countries.
“It’s amazing to think about how far STEM education has come,” explains Wood. “Twenty years ago, it was next to impossible to find STEM curriculum for early childhood settings. Today, the President of the United States is holding symposiums on STEM learning at the White House.”
After Wood reconnected with former Pacific Oaks teachers and colleagues at a recent ECSTEM conference, an invitation was extended to her to teach a four-part series about how to develop STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) curriculum at Pacific Oaks.
“I feel that everything has come full circle,” she says. “The type of personal life instruction I got at Pacific Oaks allowed me to pull all the parts together, and now I am able to pay it forward to the next generation of Pacific Oaks students.”