From periodic elements to the Packers

7 03 2011

A professor’s love for both chemistry and the Green Bay team

By Kyle Kim

Editor’s note: the feature was originally published on thewhitworthian.com on March 5, 2011.

Among the chemistry books and science articles spread throughout professor Karen Stevens’ office, another passion of hers becomes clearly evident. The native Wisconsinite is a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan.

Stevens’ deep affection for the Super Bowl champions is peppered throughout her office in the form of news clips, stickers and other team memorabilia. Under the periodic table of elements posted in the back wall of her office hangs a list of the past 11 years of the Green Bay Packers official game schedule.

“I love the Packers,” Stevens said. “[Packers fans] feel a lot of pride for our team.”

In addition to her deep knowledge of Green Bay Packers trivia, Stevens owns a share of stock of the only publicly owned, not-for-profit, major U.S. sports team. She’s used her voting right in company decisions since she purchased the stock 15 years ago, she says.

Stevens’ love for both the Packers and chemistry while growing up in an uppermiddle-class suburban town in Wisconsin.

Though in the top of her class in both English and chemistry during her senior year of high school, Stevens’ guidance counselor told her female students shouldn’t pursue the sciences in college.

“I decided that day I’m going to get a Ph.D. in chemistry and show him girls can do chemistry,” Stevens said.

The first to attend college in her family, Stevens would eventually graduate from Rice University in 1995 with a doctorate’s degree specializing in quantum chemistry. In addition to never having a female math or science teacher growing up, she said she is the only female who graduated with a doctorate degree in chemistry in her class.

“If nothing else, I want [students] to see you can be a woman in science,” Stevens said.

Within the year of graduating, she joined the Whitworth faculty. Throughout her 15 years of teaching at the university, she said figuring out the best way to engage her students has been a constant process of editing.

In one lecture in 2004, Stevens talks about calcium carbonate, the chemical compound found in antacid tablets. As Stevens tells her students how companies are profiting from selling something that can be found in chalk, she proves her point by biting off the end of the chalk she used for the blackboard.

“She’s fearless like that,” said 2006 alumna Mary Eagle, current chemistry laboratory manager who witnessed the event.

Current students of Stevens also commented on her teaching methods.

Senior Jared Onley described how Stevens energetically used her entire body in the spectroscopic analysis unit to explain how molecules and bonds move.

“Her eyes just light up when she teaches,” Onley said.

Stevens said she tries to stray away from being a dull and droning teacher by trying to create a lively classroom atmosphere.

Every year, students in her general chemistry course get a chance to experiment with the concentration of molecules and light absorption by using different colored Kool-Aid and M&Ms instead of harsh solutions.

Other experiments include a rocket demonstration in which a gummy bear is thrown into a test tube filled with molten oxygen to simulate thrusters on a space shuttle.

“It makes a huge amount of noise, and it makes smoke and it makes light, and it just goes ‘voom,’” Stevens said. “It’s a very impressive demo of how much energy is stored in one gummy bear.”

Aside from teaching in the classroom, Stevens acted as department chairwoman for approximately eight years and has been an adviser to Whitworth’s pre-med program since 2002.

“She’s a very strong part of the chemistry department,” Eagle said. “She has really brought a strong voice for the [overall science department].”

Stevens has received endowments for laboratory equipment totaling more than $275,000 for the science department. She also has received several teaching fellowships and awards, but says interactions with students remain the highlight of her career.

“The best part of the job is definitely being with the students,” Stevens said. “They’re what makes the job fun.”

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