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Open the Doors and Open the Mind: Adventures with Dr. Mary Payton, STEM Leader, Author, Radio Host

Happy New Year, and welcome to Season 2 of the Adventures in Learning podcast and blog. Our very first guest of 2023 is Dr. Mary Payton. You are in for such a treat. Dr. Mary is a STEM pioneer, educator, author, and All About STEM radio program host on the episode today (and she's a personal hero of mine).

What follows are full show notes with photos, book connections, and useful websites. If you are interested in listening to the podcast, you can do so here.

"Being a young lady of color during the 60’s we were not focused toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. Raised by the best mother in the world, I was allowed to travel my own path with her guidance." -- Dr. Mary Payton

Who is Dr. Mary Payton? Let's meet this STEM Pioneer.

Growing up, Dr. Mary (before she WAS Dr. Mary) loved tinkering. "Back in the days when we had transistor radio, I would repair radios, I worked on cars," she remembers. "And then when I was in high school and started taking my sciences, I fell in love with biology. And, you know, that was my pathway."

Dr. Mary Payton was the first African American to receive an Army Officer Commission from Texas Christian University while earning four (!!!) degrees. "And so in college, my majors were kinesiology and biology because my attitude was the more I knew about me, the more knowledgeable I'll be about movement and exercise and all of that stuff," she says. "But I never, ever knew that that would lead me into a life, almost a 30 year career, 29 years and several months military career as a US. Army chemical officer, where I got to develop stuff in physics, nuclear physics, biophysics, and got to do an enormous amount of training and development and writing and just everything."

Her path led to her serving 29 years in the United States Army as a Chemical Officer, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. During her military career, she served in many leadership positions, including head of operations for the Chemical Defense Training Facility, the director of Radiation Training for the Department of Defense, and developer of publications for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological instruction. After leaving the army, she returned to Texas with her two sons and began teaching science in the local public school, where she became department chair for biology and chemistry departments. Seeing there was still a great divide in students’ knowledge of STEM opportunities for students of color. she began working the summers with a local university as an instructor for the Texas Pre-Engineering Program (TexPREP) teaching physics, engineering, and robotics courses.

After teaching in Texas, Dr. Mary was recruited to teach biology and chemistry at a school in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Upon her return to Texas, Dr. Mary was encouraged by friends and family to start a radio broadcast related to STEM. That was the beginning of the All About STEM Radio show, where her guests have ranged from six-year-old science fair winners to engineers that have worked on all of the Apollo space missions. After a hiatus, the All About STEM Radio show will be rebooted this February.

Dr. Mary is also the author of Taylor’s STEM Adventures: Hawaii and Taylor's STEM Adventures: Texas. This series focused on how her sons were able to see STEM in each military career move.

"But after retirement, my heart still loved training, still loved teaching. So I went back into the classroom as a science teacher. I taught biology, chemistry, and physics. And my family got sick of me talking about what I do and got me to writing children's books in STEM because of all my travels and all my adventures, and that's what I've done so far. And then they convinced me to do a radio show. So I started All About STEM radio show and have been able to meet some of the most miraculous people all over the world in the STEM fields." -- Dr. Mary Payton

What were some of the biggest obstacles or challenges that you faced when you were serving in the military or working as a teacher? What were some of the things you overcame as a woman in STEM? [03:42]

[03:56] Dr Mary: Let's start with the military. When people look at you like, I was a chemical officer, and I was told when I started my Officer Basic course, well, minorities and women normally don't make it in this because of the math and science. And there were five of us African Americans, and there were four of us that were women, African American, Hispanic and white. All of us did exceptionally well. And for us, it was like we had no clue what they were talking about. And that was one of the things that kind of hit me as odd. Why would you think that people couldn't do something? And we all have done well. We've all retired. And it just hit us as odd. When I went back to Fort McLean, where I did my training, I walked in and I told the director of training, I'm going to be your nuclear physics instructor. He immediately threw me out of his office. He goes, "No you're not. Good bye." I'm like, okay, keep thinking that. And when I graduated my Officer Basic course, he's like, "Mary, I need you to teach this subject because you can do this." And part of that was from the fact I did well in the course, but I was also an educator and, you know, I loved it. I got to do what I wanted to do. I got to teach people.

"But there have been some struggles with being the only female sitting at the table. After a while, people got to know me and got to figure, wait a minute, she has something to offer. As opposed to, oh, can you go get us coffee? No, I cannot go get your coffee. I do not even know how to make coffee." --Dr Mary Payton [06:48]

What is the importance of hands-on STEM education for early childhood and elementary students? [07:33]

[07:33] Dr. Mary is in great demand as a professional development speaker. She also leads STEM activities with groups of students. She shares a story about being asked to come and do STEM projects with a group of kindergarteners in Texas. "I think the more and the younger you can expose children to STEM, the better off they are," Dr. Mary says. "It opens their minds to thinking. And so I went down and we had a whole afternoon, and I had prepared activities for the kindergarteners and the first graders and the teachers were like, I've never seen kids so involved."

She said that reaction surprised her. And she asked them whether they did science with their younger kids, only to be told no, our principal thinks that it's not relevant. "And so I went and I talked to the principal," Dr Mary says. "He goes, no, they're too young to think of anything or know anything about science. It's relatively irrelevant for them. They need to know their numbers and their ABCs" The principal's attitude launched a mission for Dr. Mary. "The past few years, I have worked with our local school here in Arlington and local daycare in Fort Worth, just doing STEM projects and STEM activities with kids ages four through six," she says. "And, you know, parents and grandparents, and the kids have just been sucked into it and loved everything that they've learned."

"In that early childhood stage, they are natural scientists. They're curious. They're asking why, they want to know. And one of the things I'm trying to do is to make sure that educators have the tools to be able to use science as a place to embed literacy. You can do your reading, your writing, all of that, the numbers, connected to the science, to things the kids are already interested in. And it just a great way to learn, and it's playful. I'd rather learn through play than any other way. And if you can catch them, as you said, at ages three, four and five, you're going to make a huge difference in terms of, I think, the pipeline of kids open to a STEM career down the road." -- Dr Diane [09:34]

Roller coaster connections to STEM learning

[10:17] Dr Mary: I think during that time, the most memorable thing that happened, I had a father who was a woodworker, and he would go out to trade shows, selling bird houses and things like that. So our last meeting at the school, we had, like, a little award ceremony. And I asked him, I said, well, what are you going to do with your son over the summer? He goes, we're building a roller coaster in the backyard. Whoa, I'm like roller coaster you can ride on? He goes, yeah. He goes, It's something I've been wanting to do with my kids, and I decided I was going to go head on and do it this summer. I think I was more excited than the kids.

[11:00] Dr Diane: Me too. That's amazing. Did he go on to do it?

[11:05] Dr Mary: Yeah, he did it. It was really nice. It was really cute. And the kids rode on it and he shared, so yeah.

[11:14] Dr Diane: That's amazing. I mean, there are so many picture books you could connect to that, like, Marla Frazee's Roller Coaster. But then there are also books that have sort of the scientific stuff. There's How to Code a Roller Coaster. I mean, you can do so many fun things with that Dad's one project.

NOTE: Some additional fun titles connected to roller coasters and STEM include The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster (Mo Willems), The 50 Most Unique Roller Coasters Ever Built (Nick Weisenberger), World’s Fastest Roller Coaster (Hubert Walker), and The Biggest Roller Coaster, Fox Tales Vol. 2(Tina Kugler).

[11:30] Dr Mary: Yes. And see, that's what people have to understand. Like, when I would go into the classroom, I didn't just go in and do a little activity and then go home. Activities for me are set up to where they have to begin with a question. I don't care how old they are. There's a question and then there is a writing component. It may be like when I do a rainbow lab, they have to write the words, write the colors of the rainbow, you know, red, orange, and they have a little write sheet where they have to write that, and then we do the rainbow. And then they have, we have a project where they have to make a rainbow. Just everything has activities that go with that module, and the kids have just loved it.

[12:29] Dr Diane: That's wonderful. And I always add a picture book component as well so that there's a read aloud that goes with it, especially with the younger ages. But I think the picture books work with older children as well, and they make great mentor texts. And more and more there are better books, I think, than even when you and I were coming up through education, you've got more diverse scientists represented, you've got more women in STEM represented. And so to be able to show them that you too, can be part of this world, I think, is huge.

[13:04] Dr Mary: Oh, yeah. And even when I taught high school and college, it wasn't just read the book, answer the questions. There were always things that they had to do that were associated with what they were learning. It could be an activity, it could be an art project, it could be a presentation, because that was how I learned. But then you have to understand, I had to also implement technology into that. And that technology has made it a whole different ballgame. And I love it.

So how are you including technology in the classes you're teaching ?

[13:51] Dr Mary: Well, you have to ask me. Her name has just escaped me. She was an MIT student, and she lives in France. One of the things that I did with my coding students was use her coding app, which is elementary, and they had to create, like, escape rooms or take one of the subjects from areas from a different subject that they were taking in school. It could be science, it could be history, it could be English. And they had to code a part of that activity, which was also something that they could turn into their teacher, and they had to make an animation from it. Wow, I just love using that program.

[14:50] Dr Diane: That's really fun. As you were talking and you were talking about France, I don't know that it's the same woman, but there's a woman named Linda Liukas who has done the Ruby books about coding for early childhood, and she actually now lives in France too. She's from the Netherlands. But they're designed for sort of that simple introduction to coding for kids and includes activities that get them thinking about it before. So it's all pen and paper stuff before they get to the technology. It's sort of a way to lay the groundwork.

Dr Mary, Children's Author of Taylor’s STEM Adventures: Hawaii and

[16:33] Dr Diane: So we talked a little bit about education and what drew you to STEM. I do want to know. Tell me more about the books that you've written.

[16:43] Dr Mary: I have Taylor’s STEM Adventures: Hawaii and Taylor’s STEM Adventures: Texas. These were my last two duty stations when I retired from the military, and the whole time I was in the military, I was always taking my family to different places. You know, the military makes you move all the time, and every time we went somewhere, I took the family to see certain things.

For example, in Hawaii, we went to Diamond Head, a dormant volcano. How were the Hawaiian Islands made? Although we talk about the seven primary islands, there are hundreds of islands in Hawaii, but we only talk about the ones that are inhabitable. And going to the islands, going to see Kilauea before it went dormant the first time was amazing. To sit there and watch the lava come down off of the mountain and look at the lava flow and go up to the mountains, and there is actually snow on the mountains. A lot of people don't think it snows in Hawaii. It does. And this last time that I was there, I had to go from Kilo to Kona to pick up something at Walmart. And I didn't realize that the higher elevation you go, the colder that it gets. And it was in January of 2020, I get to the top of the mountain and it is snowing, it is ice on the road. So I got over and it was like, you go through all of the seasons in one drive and you turn around and do all of the seasons coming back.

[19:02] Dr Diane: That's incredible.

[19:05] Dr Mary: But the books relate to a military family going from one duty station to the other because a lot of times military kids, you're somewhere for two years and all of a sudden you got to leave your friends again. Then you're somewhere for two years and all of a sudden you've got to leave your friends again. I want them to look forward to the next place that they go.

I don't have books about all 50 states, but if you're going from Texas to Georgia, what can you show your children in Georgia? If you're going from California to Kansas, what is on the road? If you're driving, you can stop, make decisions on things that you can see on the way, and that's going to keep them wanting to see things all of their life.

When I came back from working in South Korea, my son said, let's go to Big Bend National Park. I'm from Texas. Never been to Big Bend. We went out there, we stayed there for four days. And let me tell you, that place is beautiful. Understanding how water cuts through rocks, don't get me started.

[20:30] Dr Diane: There's so much beauty if we can take the time to stop and to see it.

[20:34] Dr Mary: Exactly.

[20:35] Dr Diane: You don't even have to travel the world to find it. We were recently in Arizona, and in my head, I think I had been thinking Arizona was what I knew from Phoenix and Tucson, and we were up in the Flagstaff area and places like Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon and the Grand Canyon. And as you were just talking about Hawaii, it's the same thing. You can literally see all four seasons as you descend into the canyon and come up, as you're changing elevations, and it's just phenomenal.

[21:06] Dr Mary: Yeah. And what I loved about being in Hawaii, especially this time because I was on the Big Island, I got to just walk. Like, on the weekends, I would find a trail, and I would just walk, and to see the cool lava, to see the different vegetation, to see the different animals, because they don't have squirrels in Hawaii anywhere. They have mongoose. And just to see the different birds. And then when you talk to people who were born and raised in Hawaii, they will tell you, well, this bird shows up at this season, or, this is where we go. And you can go and just see mountain goats everywhere. And it's just amazing what you learn from the locals.

[22:07] Dr Diane: And I like what you're saying about taking the time to walk as well, because I think that for me was something I learned during the pandemic, was slowing down and walking and really paying attention to the things around me. And I think as we're building in sort of this world of connections for kids, that may be something else we need to do.

[22:48] Dr Diane: So you were talking earlier about you’re gonna be rebooting the All About STEM radio show. Tell me about the original show and then tell me about your plans for the new version.

[23:07] Dr Mary: Well, the original show I started because everybody was like, okay, you meet all of these people. For example, I'm on an airplane, and I'm sitting next to an engineer from Texas Instrument, and we're just talking chitchatting. That's when I was still in the military my last few years. And he goes, I want you to come out and take a tour of the facility. Okay. Never thought this man was serious. I got a private tour of Texas Instrument.

[23:43] Dr Diane: That's cool.

[23:44] Dr Mary: And I was always meeting all of these cool people and my family, and I'm always telling my friends and family about them. They were like, you need to interview these people, because the STEM community is the quietest community I've ever been associated with. We never talk about what we do. We just do it. We do it well. And so I started the show to showcase the people that I met, and one of the first people that I interviewed was Wanda Gass with Design, Connect, Create, she worked for Texas Instrument. She developed the communications portion for satellites. She developed, she designed. And she was so funny. And when I did my research on her, I'm like, oh, my god, nobody knows you did this. She goes, Mary, I'm not talking about that. I said, well, what do you want to talk about, Wanda? She wanted to talk about girls in physics because that's what her organization does. They work with young ladies who have an interest in physics, and they do that all over the state. They have groups here in the Metroplex, down in Houston, Austin, and I love it. This summer, I did get to teach a physics camp for her over in Fort Worth. But just to know people like that there's so many people out there, but you don't know who they are, what they do. You have to look them up.

[25:36] Dr Diane: Absolutely. And then share their stories. I think we're stronger when we can amplify and connect and realize that people are doing some amazing things and they don't toot their own horns about it, but they're fascinating and they're great stories to hear and to understand.

[25:56] Dr Mary: And I've talked to kids about their science project all the way up to people who are Ted Talk interviewers to people all over the world. Vietnam, Korea, Tunisia, Canada, England, just everywhere. This community is so big.

What was Dr. Mary's most surprising interview?

[27:36] Dr Diane: So we talked about your first interview, what was your most surprising interview you've done or most surprising thing you ever had come out of an interview?

[27:46] Dr Mary: You're not going to believe this. The most surprising interviews I've done have been with my children.

[27:54] Dr Diane: Really?

[27:55] Dr Mary: Yes. My younger son, we do an interview every year, and every year it comes up being different. One year he got so emotional, he started crying on camera, and I'm like, oh my God, what did I do? Did I break my kid? He's a sound engineer. He started playing guitar when he was, like, eight. And he's been in music. He's worked for National Geographic, other movies, and television. And he just loves what he does. He owns his own production house called Paper Tone Studios. But to hear his growth has just amazed me. And then my adopted daughter, she is a biochemist at WashU, and just to hear what they do and what they've done and to showcase them. I've just been just totally amazed. And her husband is an engineer. He's been on and he works with people all over the world in structural engineering. And I'm like, oh, my God, just to hear what they did. And I'm saying this because I was interviewed by a young man not long ago, Roy Moyer, and he said that he did not know his father was in the military, like I had been in the military. And he was getting ready to interview his father because his father was a petroleum engineer. And growing up as a kid, all he thought about his father was, my dad's in the army. And he never knew what his father did. And he said they started talking one day, so people around you will totally surprise you.

[29:53] Dr Diane: Absolutely. And I know for me personally, I first became aware of you when you invited me to be on your show when I was working for the Children's Museum. And I've followed you ever since because I love what you do, and you inspired me as I was thinking about, how do I do this podcast to think about who do I want to talk to? What do I want to talk about? And one of the things I've always held onto is the idea that everybody has a story worth listening to. And I love the idea of being able to build connections and think about, well, how do we see STEM or STEAM in everyday life? How do we connect it to your adventures, into your world, and how do we make it something that kids are interested in so that we're building for the future? But I owe that to you. So thank you.

[30:42] Dr Mary: That was the premise of the show, was creating a connection or connecting. That was my tag, connecting the STEM community. Because one of the things that I just hold in my heart so dearly, I interviewed this young man, Dr. Nehemiah Mabri, and I had interviewed several young engineers. They now do a STEM success conference every year. It's an online conference. This was the first year they actually had people come in to Atlanta. And, you know, these were all people that were on my show at different times who have connected with each other, that they still come back to me and say, hey, how are you doing? They still check on me from time to time.

Dr. Mary took a break from All About STEM Radio during the pandemic, but is bringing it back, beginning in February 2023. You will be able to find the rebooted show at will air on Thursdays from 5:00 to 6:00. You can catch past (and future episodes) on Dr. Mary Payton's YouTube channel, and her website has a host of STEM resources for families and educators.

I missed talking to people about their accomplishments. I miss connecting people with other people. Just when I would meet people and they said what they do, and I'm like, oh, my God, people need to know about this. People need to know about you. And it was that hunger to tell people about other people, to give people those opportunities and to open people's eyes to what they could possibly be. -- Dr Mary Payton [32:27]

What are Dr. Mary's favorite picture books and book influences?

[35:17] Dr Diane: All right, so I have a question for you, because I ask everybody this. I love to build picture book connections with STEM. Are there books that influenced you as a child or books that influence you now as an adult that you like to use when you're working with classes of students and teachers?

[35:48] Dr Mary: Please don't laugh because this sounds weird. As a child, there were no STEM picture books. My STEM picture books were car repair books. I think they were called The Crush or something like that. And I would take them to work with my stepdad. I took Health Occupations and Auto Mechanics Auto Body in high school, and I would love those manuals when I went to college, My mom bought me the repair manual for my car.

[36:24] Dr Diane: Wow.

[36:26] Dr Mary: But lately there are so many publications out there that talk about not only STEM, but they bring awareness to environmental change and things within our environment. There is a new book by Erin Twamley, and it's Capturing Cow Farts and Burps.

[36:55] Dr Diane: Yes, I've seen that one.

[37:00] Dr Mary: And I love her to death. But it talks about how that deals with our ozone layer, our environment, and we don't think about those things. You know, what would happen if we lost all of the butterflies in the world? So, you know, it lets you know, don't use a lot of pesticides. We cannot lose our bees and butterflies.

[37:25] Dr Diane: Right.

[37:27] Dr Mary: Because that makes a big difference in our agriculture side of the house.

[37:35] Dr Diane: And it's all connected.

What currently brings Dr Mary joy?

[37:48] Dr Mary: What brings me joy? Exploration brings me joy. And I don't mean like, you know, doing a lot of research or anything like that. As you know, I just came back from Thailand, and I spent a week on Kalmach, which is a little tiny island. So I did a lot of snorkeling, did a lot of diving, and I never really researched under the water as much as I did while I was there. Or isolated islands where, you know, you only have ten people that live on the island, and the deer will walk up to you to feed them. So being in that kind of ecosystem, that kind of environment. So what brings me joy is seeing new things. This year, I've been to Costa Rica. I worked over there for a little while in Dominican Republic, and I just got back from Thailand, and I'm exploring more of Texas. But to actually see the things that you read about in books, to see the beautiful colored what do you call them? The toucan birds, the birds with the big beaks in Costa Rica, to see the spider monkeys, to have monkeys come and take our food in Thailand, those are the things that bring me joy. It's just actually see the world.

As we look forward to the New Year, what do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities for STEM education?

[39:38] Dr Mary: We're going through a major change right now. We're going through an educational change right now. So let me start there. How we're educating our kids is taking a big change because of what has happened in the past three years. A lot of our online platforms are having to really hone in on STEM, but we also have to take into consideration teaching our kids to problem solved, to do things hands-on, to think about the world or think about situations around them as a whole. For example, do you need a 3000 square foot house? How can you live smaller? How can you work smarter? Do you want to change your footprint? Because if you look at the world right now, due to the situation and I was in Hawaii when it happened back being there, I rarely saw a monk seal. Now the monk seals have come back, which are seals that are primarily around the Hawaiian islands. You know, sharks, although people don't like sharks. They’re okay. You start seeing more different sharks around Oahu than before the coral reefs started clearing up. So how we teach our kids, you know, to be better custodians of the planet and then how we teach them to think forward. What are we going to need in the future? Because we have these smartphones. I don't know how old you are, but I remember the party line.

[41:40] Dr Diane: Oh, I do, too.

[41:42] Dr Mary: Having a party line at my grandparents house, having one phone that was tethered to the wall to have to have a television, a computer, a telephone, a dollar up modem for your Internet. Now everything is on one little thing that you hold in your hand. Calculators. You can talk to anybody in the world. Do WhatsApp? Like a TikToc or something like that. So what is going to be next? What's going to be next? Elon Musk is doing space. Going up in space. Who would have thought an independent person would be doing something like that, right?

[42:37] Dr Diane: So it sounds like there are some opportunities as well as some challenges for us. Our job as STEM educators is to continue to open the doors and make those connections.

[42:47] Dr Mary: Yeah. Open the doors and open the mind.

[42:50] Dr Diane: Absolutely. Well, Dr. Mary, it has been such a pleasure to have you on the Adventures in Learning podcast. Happy New Year. And I can't wait to have you back.

[42:59] Dr Mary: And I can't wait to have you on the All About STEM radio show, Dr. Diane, because you have got to come back because I need to know what you're doing now.

[43:10] Dr Diane: I would love to come back and talk about the ways I'm helping connect teachers and educators to STEM That would be wonderful.

As a blast from the past, check out the All About STEM Radio interview Dr. Mary did with Jen Coleman and me when we were working at a children’s museum together.

As a affiliate, I may earn a small commission if you click through and purchase. I provide these lists as a way for you to browse and discover the books we talk about in the blog. Your purchase helps support local independent bookstores.

Follow My Antarctica Adventures in Learning on Social Media

Dr. Diane was on a huge Adventure in Learning during the month of December. Follow me on Instagram or Facebook as I explore the amazing science and mysterious beauty of Antarctica. I was only able to post short videos while in Antarctica, but am gearing up to share more in-depth answers about this beautiful and important continent. Are there questions you have about Antarctica? Are there topics you'd like me to cover in 2023 or podcast guests you'd like to hear from? Drop me a line.

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