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Moms Figuring It Out: Erica Peterson of Science Tots

Moms Figuring It Out
Christopher Keough
February14/ 2017

Moms Figuring It Out takes a look at women whose lives change – in outlook or evolving career paths or new directions – when they become mothers. For many moms, there’s a moment when it hits you that things aren’t working and you’ve got to make a move. In the first in this series, read about one mother, a high school dropout who went on to college and became a scientist, and her breakthrough moment and where it led her.  

Mom Figuring It Out
Erica Peterson’s commitment means often combining working with snuggle time.

Erica Peterson was in her first semester of a Ph.D. program at West Virginia University when she became pregnant. It had been a long road to graduate student. Despite early difficulties – she had dropped out of high school and didn’t go to college until the age of 21 — she earned degrees from West Virginia University and California University of Pennsylvania, a certificate in Infant & Toddler Education and board certification in cytotechnology.

Finding herself pregnant so early in grad school, she sought advice. “I went to the one female professor in the biology department who had children, and she said, ‘You should leave and come back later.’ ”

And she did. Peterson left the program and applied for a job at the university’s cancer center and went back to work when her newborn son was six weeks old.

It was very hard. Sometimes, to do experiments, I’d have to bring in my son because I had to pick him up (from daycare) at 6 o’clock, but the cells don’t wait for you,” she says. Sometimes other graduate students would play with the baby while she worked.

“Then my husband got promoted, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to stay at home with my son,” says Peterson.

She took a year off, then found a job with the cytotechnology program at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, followed by the Hillman Cancer Center. “I said, ‘OK, I am going to do this,” she says.

Then she became pregnant with her second baby.

“I decided to leave because I didn’t want to go back to work after six weeks again,” she says.

It was ultimately her children who helped her decide her next move. Through observing them at play and playing with them, she developed an interest in the “science of babies.” She’s a scientist, after all, so she led them to activities that weren’t readily available to others their age.

“I noticed that there wasn’t much science exploration in the infant-toddler rooms (at daycare). I just kept thinking there has to be a better way to instill that scientific curiosity while they’re babies.”

She decided to foster that curiosity and as a result founded Science Tots. The nonprofit organization promotes adult participation in the early childhood development of STEM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) and STEAM (add art to the mix) skills.

As a one-woman force, she began offering community classes for kids and their parents that involved fun science experiments and activities. Science Tots programming includes parent and child pop-up workshops and activities – like “Messy Science” and “Squishy Circuits.”

She traveled to daycares, festivals and community days throughout Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia to spread the word. The idea? To present families with simple activities they can do at home to promote STEM/Steam learning.

She points to coding as an example of a hot topic.

“What do kids need to know, what are the activities for kids to be good at it later?” Peterson asks. “They all involve patterns, sequencing, these abstract math concepts. So, if you’re working with babies, how might you teach that?

“To me, what comes to mind is you have two sets of blocks, red and blue. Just play with the blocks and arrange them red, blue, red, blue, and see what they do next. You’re teaching them about patterns, but they’re still playing, they’re still having fun. They’re not sitting at a computer coding, but they’re learning these concepts so they can be successful later.”

The organization she founded is still growing and finding its way. Recently Peterson formed a board so she is now board president with five other board members. And Science Tots is seeking volunteers to help with their mission. (Interested? Contact her.)

But despite all the work, Peterson is encouraged by the feedback.

“I’ve just always had to work very hard,” Peterson says. “My husband works long hours, I have two kids, and I’m trying to run an organization. If my husband gets home at 10 p.m., I’m up until 3 a.m. making sure that emails get answered, that we’re getting the word out there.”

Her goal is to share resources with parents, and then work together with school systems to ensure children’s later success.

“I want children to be independent thinkers,” Peterson says. “I want them to be problem solvers. I want them to be innovative. And when they’re down I want them to get back up again.”

Just like she has done.

Science Tots will be the beneficiary of an “Eat Franks for Tots” event at Franktuary’s in Lawrenceville on March 8. Ten percent from tabs opened between 5 and 7 p.m. will be donated to Science Tots. 

Visit the Science Tots Facebook page for upcoming events for kids – and teachers.

Got an interesting change of life story since becoming a mom? We’d love to hear it. 

Christopher Keough