First Haddix Community Chair of Science creating strong bonds with Omaha and its young people

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As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, Christine Cutucache learned to love STEM subjects though hands-on experiences.

UNO’s newest star professor of STEM has a secret.

“I hated school.”

She laughs.

“I absolutely hated school,” says Christine Cutucache, Ph.D., a highly regarded young tumor immunologist who holds the first Dr. George Haddix Community Chair in Science.

She liked hanging out with the horses on her mother’s ranch in Wisconsin and doing chores with a practical outcome, not sitting through boring lectures.

She learned best by using her hands, not memorizing Hamlet.

“I really wanted to work on cars for the rest of my life. I planned on being a mechanic or restoring classic cars.”

She was lucky, she says, that a few high school teachers brought science to life for her in a hands-on way.

That’s what she’s doing now as the Haddix Community Chair of Science. She’s bringing life, and love, to a subject that should be innately exciting for kids – many who are like the one she used to be. (Her hate for school wasn’t that long ago; Cutucache is only 28.)

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. UNO now has four community chairs who serve as leaders in its STEM efforts. Besides Cutucache, they are Neal Grandgenett, Ph.D., who holds the Haddix Community Chair of STEM Education in the College of Education; Angie Hodge, Ph.D., who holds the Haddix Community Chair of Mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences; and Brian Dorn, Ph.D., who holds the Union Pacific Community Chair of Computer Science in the College of Information Science & Technology.

Since being named the Haddix Community Chair in Science a year ago, Cutucache has been reaching out to the campus and the community to promote STEM education in many innovative ways and lighting fires – sometimes literally.

She mentors young mentors. She helps the undergraduate and graduate students in a UNO pre-professional training program called NE STEM4U as they help kids explore science in afterschool programs everyday of the academic year.

They build and race rockets on clotheslines, using balloons to propel them …

They scrape tissue from inside their own cheeks to study their own DNA …

They create tornadoes of fire. …

“I will hear some middle-school girls walk in and say, ‘Oh, this is not for me. I do not like science.’ Then when they leave after doing science, you hear them say, ‘This is science? I love science!’

“And that is cool.”

NE STEM 4U has offered its informal after-school programming to more than 2,000 kids in the Omaha Public Schools system, starting with the most disadvantaged schools. NE STEM 4U was in eight OPS elementary and middle schools last year. It’s likely to be in nine or 10 by the start of this school year.

Hands-on learning builds confidence, Cutucache says. Studies indicate that how students perceive themselves – whether they think they’re good in science or not – influences them going into tests like the SATs as well as in the careers they choose.

It’s been fun watching her UNO students grow, too, she says. This past April, a grad student she mentored toward his degree in tumor immunology, Tyler Herek, won the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. It’s considered the highest honor a graduate student can be awarded.

She feels lucky to hold the Haddix Community Chair in Science, named for Dr. George Haddix, a UNO alumnus (’62) and former UNO mathematics professor who founded a series of highly successful STEM companies.

“This community chair model is just so impressive,” she says. “And Dr. Haddix – oh, my gosh – what a wonderful person. He’s absolutely amazing, down to earth.

“He’s been so good in his life translating his vision into this. It’s just the perfect model.”

If you also would like to help students fall in love with science and other STEM subjects, please consider giving online to the Haddix Community Chair of Science Fund or call the University of Nebraska Foundation at 800-432-3216.

For more information on UNO’s STEM Education Strategic Plan and Leadership, visit the Office of STEM Education.

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