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Out & About: Teacher, writer and leader fires love of science

Austin’s Karen Ostlund has written 300 textbooks and heads a national science teachers group

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Karen Ostlund’s classes didn’t just study science, they did science.

At a recent party, innovative Austin educator Steve Amos overheard guests talking about books they had written. Amused, he asked Karen Ostlund aloud how many she had dashed off.

Ostlund: “More than 300.”

To be precise, the Austinite, president of the National Science Teachers Association, has written textbooks, which have required updated editions, as science textbooks often do.

Still, more than 300 is a pretty impressive number.

A white-blond Midwesterner, Ostlund, 69, appears to smile perpetually. A marathoner since 1983, she met me for coffee right after a Sunday morning triathlon. I was shocked that she looked so rested.

“I volunteered to work in the medical tent,” she later explained. “I’m a runner.”

Descended from Swedes, Slavs and Germans, Ostlund was born in Kenosha, Wis. Her mother and father worked as mechanical engineers for American Motors. Clean-cut and good in school, she engaged in a lot of extra activities.

“I liked people,” she says. “I had lots friends. Our house was always open. We’d go ice skating. My mother would make sloppy joes and hot chocolate. I guess she figured she could watch over us.”

She studied engineering at Purdue University, started a family, then moved to Minnesota. There, she taught science and Spanish and eventually earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

Her second marriage was to Frederick W. Taylor, now a senior research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences. Her son, Alden Balmer, is physics teacher at McNeil High School and serves as CEO of Doc Fizzix, a mousetrap car kit company. (You read that right.)

Wouldn’t want to argue against evolution or climate change at that family dinner table.

While she was teaching, Ostlund’s specialty was that hard-to-sell age group between elementary and high schools.

“Middle school students are totally out of sync, physiologically, psychologically and emotionally,” she says. “Yet they really gravitate toward science. We always did science, we didn’t just read science.”

Every day, Ostlund led activities in physical, life and Earth sciences. Under the guidance of two professors while in graduate school, she used her science classroom as a lab for studying effective cooperative strategies with individual accountability and group goals.

“We’d structure it so everyone in the group has a task,” she says. “Unless they all do their task, the group doesn’t reach the group goal. And we’d rotate the jobs so they all have a chance to be in leadership and subordinate roles.”

She moved to Austin in 1984, teaching future science teachers at what is now Texas State University-San Marcos. In 1991, she was given an academic appointment at University of California-Berkeley, which she still holds, to develop science curricula.

Since 1995, she has worked on and off at UT’s Science Education Center. She was instrumental in developing the breakthrough UTeach program which nurtures potential science teachers early in their college careers.

She started writing textbooks on science activities and the process skills of inquiry in the 1980s. Her favorite is “Destinations in Science,” which encourages teachers to turn their classrooms into an ocean or a pizza parlor in order to investigate the science of that place.

The most popular book, however, is the more traditional “Scott Foresman Science” which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

“I’m not rich,” she says. “The companies get the money.”

If that were not enough, Ostlund heads the 60,000-member science teachers group, making sure the executive director and staff of more than 100 promote excellence and innovation in science teaching. Currently, they are working on the next generation of national science standards.

“States like Texas won’t adopt them,” she says. “But we have to get the standards up to speed so people can use them in their classrooms.”

Decades ago, science skeptics were often dreamy-eyed romantics who doubted the primacy of reason. Now they are just as likely to be religious fundamentalists, who claim biblical primacy over science.

“It makes me wonder about their science background,” she says. “It tells me we need a citizenry that is scientifically literate. It starts with having good science teachers in the classroom.”

One of her hardest tasks is to convince people that science isn’t just for scientists.

“Science is all around us,” she says. “We all need it. If you cook, if you just run a household or run a car, it’s science.”