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Kathleen Bergin: biologist by training, educator by passion

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“I just feel phenomenally lucky that I had the kind of education that I had at Georgia College,” said Kathleen Bergin, a program director for the National Science Foundation.

Originally from Marietta, Bergin began her career in science in Herty Hall as a biology lab assistant. 

The low student-teacher ratio allowed professors to really get to know students, she said, “and I happened to be taking a required science course under Dr. David Cotter, who asked if I had ever thought about majoring in science.” Bergin told the professor that she wasn’t interested in lab work. He then hired her, a freshman, as a lab assistant so that, as Bergin said, “I would learn to love it.”

“Now he saw something in me by the way I asked questions, by the way my mind worked, and I think that could only happen in a place where the number of students is such that a professor can know who you are,” said Bergin. During her four years in biology, she worked most closely with recently retired Dr. Harriet Whipple, who Bergin said was “a great teacher of science.”

Bergin spent 12 years as a chemistry, physics and biology teacher in Dougherty County, Ga., and three years in the central office.  During a seven-year stint with the State Department of Education as the State Science Coordinator and State Curriculum Director, she came to know the National Science Foundation as a peer reviewer. In fact, since around 1989 Bergin worked with the NSF either as a peer reviewer or getting grants.

She was also Project Director for the Georgia Initiative in Mathematics and Science based at the University of Georgia. While working at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Bergin accepted an invitation to work for the NSF as a program officer. 

NSF borrows individuals to serve a rotation at the Foundation, which is an asset to NSF as it benefits from the perspectives of teachers with recent experience, while the individuals and their institutions benefit as they return with new insights and national viewpoints.

Before retiring and returning to the NSF, she was the Associate Director for the Center for Education Integrating Mathematics, Science and Computing at Georgia Tech.

“All children can learn mathematics and science at deep meaningful levels,” Bergin said, “and it is the adults who need to work to discover the strategies that will engage, motivate, and provide access to the creativity and wonder that are inherent in these disciplines.”

Compared to the way science was taught in public schools up until 1984, Bergin explained, “today there is greater emphasis on inquiry teaching, teaching students to inquire to do investigations.”

She also said that she feels fortunate to have been an undergraduate here at GC working in the labs doing research with faculty. “So, when I started teaching,” she said, “that’s pretty much how I taught.”

As a teacher, Bergin was steeped in doing experiments with students, taking them outside to investigate the real world. Today, ”we’re asking teachers to have students identify their own investigations, whereas back then, teachers tended to identify investigations for them.”

The National Science Foundation, formed in 1950 by the federal government, is considered an independent-level agency like NASA and the National Institutes of Health.  Grant-seekers write proposals to be considered by peer reviewers, including scientists and science and math educators.  Reviewers study the proposals and write both what they think is effective about them and what they feel can be improved.

NSF program officers then recommend proposals for funding, and then manage funded proposals. Funded projects are expected to produce published results from which others can learn.

As part of the Division of Undergraduate Education, Bergin works primarily on undergraduate teaching. That includes what happens at the k-12 level.

“We’re interested in improving the whole undergraduate experience and contributing to the STEM pipeline,” she said.

What gives her the greatest satisfaction is being able to think creatively with others at NSF, in schools, institutions of higher education or the broader community, about ideas for advancing the teaching and learning of subjects like science, mathematics and engineering.   

“What sends chills up and down my spine is when I have the privilege of seeing some of this creative thinking actually translated into an exciting direction, policy, practice, programmatic change or full blown project where all involved are energized by their engagement in cutting-edge science and learning situations that allow for the maximization of each individual’s potential.”

“I always tell people, ‘I’m a biologist by training, but an educator by passion,’” said Bergin. “I love what I’m doing and feel very privileged to be doing it.”

“I always tell people, ‘I’m a biologist by training, but an educator by passion,’” said Bergin. “I love what I’m doing and feel very privileged to be doing it.’”

ABOUT GEORGIA COLLEGE: Georgia College, the state’s designated Public Liberal Arts University, combines the educational experience expected at esteemed private liberal arts colleges with the affordability of public higher education. Its four colleges – arts and sciences, business, education and health sciences – provide 6,600 undergraduate and graduate students with an exceptional learning environment that extends beyond the classroom, with hands-on involvement with faculty research, community service, study abroad and myriad internships.

Founded in 1889, Georgia College boasts one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation with Corinthian columns fronting red brick buildings and wide open green spaces. Georgia College also offers graduate education at the historic Jefferson building in downtown Macon, at Robins Air Force Base and online.

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