Today we meet Nancy Balter, US scientist and creator of the Nancy B Science Club brand. We asked Nancy about how she combines her career with family life and her work to encourage more children especially girls to explore and pursue science.
BoardroomMum Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself?
I have a degree in biology from Yale University as well as a Master’s in Science Education from USC (University of Southern California). I’m a former math and science teacher. I’ve built a telescope from scratch (including grinding the lens for the primary mirror), I used to be an avid scuba diver, and I think I’m regarded as the office nerd.
BoardroomMum Can you please provide some information on your career to this point?
After graduating from Yale University, I joined a teaching organization called Teach for America (TFA). TFA sends recent college graduates to teach in underserved urban and rural areas in the United States. I was assigned to teach in Compton, California. I taught math and science to 7th and 8th graders (kids ages 12-14). Although my teaching commitment was only two years, I stayed for eleven. During that time I earned my Master’s degree. Working with another teacher, we applied for—and were granted—ten thousand dollars in grant money to start a summer robotics program at our school. In 1998, I was awarded Compton Unified School District Teacher of the Year.
Eventually I started looking for a new challenge and found my current job advertised online. I wasn’t sure I was qualified to make toys but fortunately Educational Insights (now a division of Learning Resources in the US) was looking for a former teacher for the job. Because of my background in biology and as a science teacher (and possibly also because of the above-mentioned “office nerd” aspect of my personality), I became the product developer at Educational Insights who focuses on math and science toys. This has been a really fun, challenging, and unexpected career trajectory. It’s all the more exciting now that I have two young children who provide inspiration and a testing ground for new toy ideas.
BoardroomMum Were you clear on what you wanted to do as a career?
Nancy Balter As a child I knew I wanted to be a vet, and then a marine biologist, a biomedical engineer, and an astronaut! By the time I graduated from college, I was sure I wanted to be a teacher. However, never in a million years did I think I would be making educational toys for a living. I feel lucky to have had this surprise career.
BoardroomMum How many children do you have?
Nancy Balter Two. My son, Eric, is 5½ and my daughter, Clara, is 3½.
BoardroomMum How do you combine career with family life?
That’s a tough one to answer. Like just about every other mother I meet, I always feel like I’m trying to figure that out a little better. I love being with my children and I love my job. But I think if I did either exclusively I’d go completely mad. One emotional issue is constantly feeling the tug in both directions. Coming here to the UK is a classic example of that; I was very excited to come here—but sad to leave my children behind in California. I am lucky to work for a company that is fairly flexible about my time—allowing me to work from home one day a week as well as understanding when I need to leave early for school events.
BoardroomMum Tell us more about Nancy B’s Science Club®. How did this come about?
The original inspiration for this line had to with the recognition that relatively few women are choosing to work in scientific fields. Research indicates that young girls love science as much as boys do, but somewhere along the line girls are parting ways with science. One hypothesis struck a chord with us: that girls are perhaps more embarrassed to take a guess in class (and be wrong) or try an unfamiliar tool than boys are. So our aim with the Nancy B’s Science Club line was, and is, to get girls comfortable with scientific tools and processes early on so that when the time comes to answer in class or step up to the lab table, they do it with confidence, and continue down the scientific path.
We started with the actual tools themselves and decided that if we made them aesthetically attractive then kids (girls and boys) might be more likely to leave them sitting out in their rooms. If a microscope, for example, is sitting on your desk all the time, then you are more likely to look through it than if it’s packed away in a box. Once we started re-designing the tools, we got really excited about adding cool kid-friendly features, such as a red light built into the MoonScope tripod to protect from night blindness when reading a moon map.
Even so, we were concerned that kids might just play with these tools for a few minutes and then not know what to with them. So with each NancyB product we included an activity journal filled with things kids can do with the science tool.
BoardroomMum You are here in London on Friday 10th October 2014 at the Science Museum. What are your aims with regard to this visit?
It’s always important to see how children are interacting with our toys. This helps us to improve our products and to get inspiration for new ones. American and British education systems are different so it will be interesting to get British children’s reactions to our science toys—including the Nancy B’s Science Club line.
On a personal level, I’ve taken many field trips to science museums with my students back in California. It will be really fun to spend a day being part of school science museum field trips in London!
BoardroomMum What can be done to encourage more girls to study/be interested in science?
Nancy Balter This is an important question. Most girls are interested in some aspects of science—be it space, dolphins, dinosaurs, baby animals, being a vet, robots, etc. Finding out what those interests are and then building on them through field trips to fun science locations—science museums, aquariums, nature centers, etc.—reading books on those science topics of interest, or playing with toys that encourage that interest (such as a telescope or a microscope) are important ways to be encouraging. Another important component is to expose girls to role models. After Sally Ride became the first American woman astronaut to go into space, I remember reading that the number of girls attending Space Camp sky rocketed (pun intended). Role models are really important. This is the reason we’ve put biographies of women in science on the packages as well as online for the Nancy B’s Science Club products.
BoardroomMum Can you tell us more about some of the products that you have designed and developed?
In addition to the Nancy B’s Science Club line, I’m also very proud of some of the toys I’ve worked on in the GeoSafari Jr. Science line. One example is the GeoSafari Jr. Kidnoculars, which were inspired by my son. When he was two years old, I watched my son unsuccessfully trying to see the images inside a toy camera. It made me realize he would have similar difficulties trying to look through a pair of binoculars. As a result, I started thinking about features to help him see through binoculars: two extra-large eyepieces with a face mask that would perfectly position his eyes to see through the binoculars, plus low magnification to maintain a wide field of view. It was from that thought process that Kidnoculars came into existence. The Kidnoculars were so successful that we followed that product up with My First Microscope, which has similar features that make it great for very young children.
The Underwater Explorer Boat is another fun science toy with an interesting background story. That idea arose when I was interviewing the scientist profiled on the Nancy B’s Science Club Aquascope. She told us that marine biologists sometimes put a piece of glass on the surface of the water in order take the glare off the surface and enable them to see below. I realized this would make a fun toy for children who are naturally curious about the world beneath the water’s surface but are frequently afraid to get their heads wet.
BoardroomMum Any tips or recommendations for other women out there who wish to pursue their career ambitions and aspirations?
If you see a job advertised that is of interest to you, apply for it. Even if you don’t think you’re qualified, go in for the interview. You never know who they’re looking for until you get there—it might be you! And even if you don’t get the job, you’ll walk away with a better picture of what it’s like to work there and more knowledgeable about how to get that job.
BoardroomMum Would you have done anything differently?
I am really fortunate to be able to say ‘no’ to that question. When I ‘m chasing my children around I sometimes think I should’ve had kids at a younger age. On the other hand, by waiting longer I was able to get more established in my career and I think that has been good for both the children and for me.
BoardroomMum What are your plans personally and professionally?
I’m really happy with what I’m doing right now. My hope is that I can continue to challenge myself to grow and learn new things.
BoardroomMum Thank you Nancy for your time and insight. We at www.boardroommum.com wish you every continued success.