Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy

To ignite and nurture creative, ethical, scientific minds that advance the human condition.

Experience Leading IMSA: Interview with New President and Principal

As the 2013-2014 academic year began at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy,  President Catherine C. Veal and Principal Branson Lawrence sat down for a short, candid interview about their history at IMSA, how they came into their new positions, and what they see in the future for the Academy.

Cathy, you’ve been at IMSA for 28 years, and Branson, you’ve been here for 22. Was there ever a moment where you knew you would stay here?

Cathy: For me there were several moments through the years. Mainly, it seemed that every time I felt I had done and contributed everything I could for IMSA, a new opportunity would pop up. Stephanie [Pace Marshall, Founding President and President Emerita] kept inviting me to do something else, and ultimately the Board of Trustees asked me to serve as President when Max [McGee, Past President] stepped down. Mostly I love the mission and the people at IMSA, and opportunities kept coming up that helped me keep my experience here fresh while allowing me to stretch professionally.

Branson: When I started at IMSA I had already taught at five schools, so at first I thought I’d teach here for three or four years at the most. But the energy and creativity was at such a high level that it seemed we were always in the middle of some really cool project and I couldn’t leave. One of the first experiences was the Perspectives Program.  It consisted of a team of teachers from all seven departments and a group of students they all shared during regular classes. They met every Wednesday to integrate curriculum, and it was just so much fun! It was all voluntary but we just kept coming up with new ideas. That made staff and students want to be present.  Examples include a unit on Darwin that culminated in staff and  students canoeing on the Fox River, and a fun unit on historical architecture, history and poetry that finished with a student-built  “cable-stay” bridge in the batting cage area that was 12-feet long and 10-feet high at the center pillar -- it held over 4,000 pounds!  After Perspectives we decided to do integrated science, which was a huge project. The last two years I’ve been waiting for something, and I think the integration of the faculty, Professional Field Services, and statewide online courses is the next big thing.

Cathy: It’s interesting to hear Branson mention Perspectives in light of the big push in recent years to strengthen IMSA’s identity as an educational laboratory. Really, the “old timers,” as well as our enabling legislation, have always seen us as a laboratory; it’s not something new. The Integrated Science and Perspectives experiments and our calculus-based physics study featured on NBC’s Dateline are great examples of that. One thing that was new in recent years was our choice to aspire to be not just a laboratory, but the “world’s leading teaching and learning laboratory for imagination and inquiry.”

Both of you have had a major impact in the lives of many of IMSA’s alumni. What’s the best thing about seeing former IMSA students as successful adults?

Branson: I’m always happy when we can produce great teachers and generally when our alumni are doing great things in the field of education, like Kathleen [Plinske ‘97], who is doing great work in Florida as President of two of Valencia College’s campuses. Also I’m very proud of engineering students who are doing work to improve the lives of those less fortunate, such as Alex [Surasky-Ysasi ‘03] who has worked on bringing power sources to developing countries. I locathy2.jpgve to see my former students working on engineering projects that are advancing the human condition.

Cathy: Interacting with alumni is another aspect of IMSA that has kept me here through the years. It’s so exciting seeing them grow up, including “kids” I once disciplined as Dean of Students who are now doing great things for our state, nation and world.  I always knew it would be so, but to see it for myself and to work with them now, that is special. I love that they’re now positioned and motivated to come back as volunteers and donors, and we can call on them to help IMSA in all kinds of ways, which they’re happy to do.

One of the really fun things for me in more recent years has been working to help start the IMSA TALENT program. A dozen or so years ago we met with the then-CEO of Cabot Microelectronics. He wasn’t an IMSA alumnus, but he was the IMSA-type, and yet he said, “I wouldn’t have applied to IMSA and I wouldn’t have gotten in.” We were stunned by that comment, but it led us to conversations with a lot of people, including our alumni who helped start Paypal, YouTube and Netscape, who said that IMSA’s curriculum and co-curricular programs were strong in research and inquiry for the “academic type” but not as strong in entrepreneurial opportunities for the “applied type.”  That was an “aha!” moment for me, as IMSA should be for both types of talented math and science students.  And so we engaged a number of alumni to help us conceive and design our entrepreneurship program. They are key volunteers, advisers and donors for this.  That’s one of the initiatives in recent years I’ve really enjoyed.

Now we think of our alumni first, so if a student wants help with a problem, we can always connect them with an alumnus/a who’s willing to assist. I think it would be hard to find a field where we don’t have willing and accomplished alumni.

In your convocation speeches both of you talked about the things that influenced and inspired you while you were growing up. Do you think that you would have been a good candidate for IMSA if it existed when you were a kid? What aspects of IMSA do you think would have suited you?

Cathy: I think I would have been a good candidate. I was accepted to and attended the Governor’s School in North Carolina (this is before the North Carolina School of Science and Math existed), was a good student and loved math and science.cathy1.jpg

IMSA’s education would have suited me well. What happened to me, unfortunately, happens with too many girls: I had a great high school chemistry teacher, went to college intending to major in pharmacy, then hated the large, lecture-style, freshmen year weeder courses with no personal attention and no active engagement in learning.  At the same time I had a computer science professor who was terrible and great humanities professors and classes and, before you knew it, I was journalism major. One nice thing about working at IMSA is that I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to rediscover and relive my passion for science and my fascination with technology innovation.

Branson: Math and science have always been my subjects. IMSA is actually the only place I haven’t taught mathematics. I definitely would’ve liked problem-based learning. I loved to tinker around with stuff and do 4-H projects. There’s one issue: I did play football. I even coached football for ten years, so it would have been hard for me to give that up.

Can you both speak a little bit about what programs you see coming in the near future for IMSA that you’re excited about?

Branson: We’re piloting a personalized learning experience for one or two seniors this spring, they would be doing part of their education in alternative ways, such as taking a long-term internship for an organization such as 1871 Chicago. We still have to work out how they meet their graduation requirements, but it’s a promising new program.  In her new role, Barb Miller will work with every student who not only needs help, but also the ones who have done everything we’ve asked of them and want more challenges.

Cathy: I think we have many emerging opportunities in online programs, services, resources and marketing, and I’m hopeful that we’ll find our distinctive niche, figure out what we can and should do well, what fits our mission and who we are.  Some examples of this are our new RISE course, CoolHub projects, the new Mentor Matching Engine, and the pilots that Dr. Noah Prince is doing with math camps.  I think you’re going to see a lot of progress in these areas this year.  We’re also going to reinvigorate our multicultural development plan, which will be a stronger force in the institution moving forward. Adrienne Coleman is moving into a new role where she’ll be leading efforts to strengthen multicultural programs and services throughout the institution, working closely with our faculty and staff, alumni, board, students, parents and others.

One final thing I want to mention, because it’s so important, is capital. Our facilities are aging and require significant work, in some cases to fix things like our academic building roof and our residence halls exterior and interior systems, and in other cases to create “next generation” learning spaces for science and innovation. We have many needs, and thankfully we have new momentum for both public and private funding.

We talk a lot about The IMSA Way, and you don’t have to be around IMSA long to see and feel it, but often it can be elusive to define. What’s the best way to describe it? When have you seen The IMSA Way embodied, perhaps in our students, faculty, or staff?

Branson: As a teacher working with other teachers, students, and staff, I see the IMSA Way as being a creative, rigorous, branson1.jpegand mind-melding fun. I would compare it to jazz, where everyone is doing something unique that contributes to the whole. When we were creating integrated science we all met twice a week it was like a jazz collaboration -- everything was open for discussion. But just like jazz doesn’t fit into a nice orderly pattern, the scheduling of this unique program left it lacking.  It was hard to nail down into a class period.  If we can remove such limitation about what can make it into a learning environment, we can develop a very special and exciting learning experience.

Cathy: It’s hard to say it better than that. Jenny [Deller] ’94 talked about the IMSA Way in her convocation speech, and she talked about her father feeling guilty for sending her so far away, but when he heard the impact of IMSA on her thinking and growth, he was teary-eyed.  So it’s about creating the conditions and engineering active engagement, and I think inquiry and research, innovation and entrepreneurship, and leadership and service are all key components.

Cathy, you often reference Dean Smith and the UNC basketball team as great motivators, and Branson, you’re a staple of the staff basketball team. Is there any basketball-related wisdom the IMSA community should keep in mind this year?

Cathy: I go back to what I say about “The Carolina Way”: Play hard, play together, play smart. It’s easy to see when it’s working, and it’s easy to see when it’s not.branson2.jpeg

Branson: On a lighter note: shoot, shoot, shoot. You can’t be afraid to try.

So we should look out for that at the staff vs. students basketball game this year.

Yep. No one cares about defense.