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Kaye Howe - Trancript

Kaye Howe
National Science Digital Library, UCAR
Interviewed 2/11/2010

-- Beginnings --

[Please state your name and the position you are in. and tell us a little bit about the background of NSDL]

I'm Kaye Howe and I'm director of the resource center for NSDL, which is the National STEM Digital Library. STEM meaning, as we know, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The NSDL started probably, officially, about 2001. That was when the grant program really started. So we’ve been in business now for you know almost ten years. And the background—it came out of a lot of research on the internet, the web, you know, what was going to happen. And there was a small group of people, among them I think our program officer Lee Zia, who still, thank goodness is with us, and Tom Kalil, who’s now very prominent in OSTP in the white house, the Office of Science and Technology policy. They, I think, were visionaries, really.

So Lee, I think he came our of the—we have an email of his for example, where he says everybody – he’s in the National Science Foundation – everybody’s coming in and saying, I need to do a website. Well, instead of giving all of these people for a website, why don’t we do one big website? So in some ways NSDL started as simply as that, though I think they probably had a kind of gut feeling that there was a lot going on. A lot was going to happen, who knew where it was going to go, and in the beginning NSDL was all about content, and access to content. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Challenges --

[What were some of the challenges that you faced?]

I think the biggest challenge was we had no idea what we were doing, you know? Nobody—nobody knew what it was we were supposed to do—uh—we were not staffed up—uh…I think we all in our own way—you know, I thought of an office that was rather like “The Office”—I would have had as a president or a vice chancellor.... When I think, just as an example, one of the first things we did, because that was what I knew—was that we ordered very attractive letterhead. Well, I think we still have it, you know, no one writes formal letters, you know? We don’t have anything like that. So we all had our own ideas of how things should run.
I think the—so we weren’t quite sure what it was about—um—the other thing was it’s always been very distributed, so we had colleagues at Cornell and Columbia—those were our primary colleagues that gave us some extraordinarily nice trips, although we did spend a lot of time in the Philadelphia airport trying to get to Ithaca. But it was just challenge of a whole new kind of organization—where—although this is not unknown to people in universities altogether, you had a lot of responsibility and you had very little authority. And that’s probably everybody from the Pope on would say that’s the great management challenge. But what should it be, where should we go, what should we do, what were we to make of this and how to work together in a new kind of organization, though one with many residences, with all of the old kind of organizations. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Hindsight --

[Looking back, is there anything that you would have changed or done differently?]

Well, I wish it were in the nature of human nature to—understand and accept and kind of go with change. But I don’t believe it is in the nature of human nature (laughs), that there’s a certain rhythm to these things, and you can look back and think, well, you know—but really there’s not too much you can do about that. I mean you can try to be more efficient, you can try to be more articulate, but you know, you may think—you remember back to first grade when they gave you a little paper cup and some dirt and you put a seed in you know to plant something like a sweet potato that would spring up the next day, and the great threat to its future was you’d keep pulling it up to see if it was growing? So I think there has to be a certain patience about the way in which—change takes place in human societies. And we all talk about how scary it is, you know, and usually we’re talking about that when we’re talking about how scary it is for someone else and not for us, but all of us experience that too. So they just—things take time, things go along, and you have to just—go with that. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Advice --

[What topic do you see is hot for future professionals in this field?]

You know, all this is ultimately epistemological, you know, how do people learn. And we are learning so much. I mean, I have begun to pray for reincarnation being real that I could come back and see how this all turns out. So it sounds as if every day we find out something more about how our brain works, how we learn, what are the differentiations among people. That understanding of the learning process and the—the application of what we know to education, which is absolutely the most important thing on the planet except for kindness perhaps, you know—that is the area, you know, how do we—how do we take advantage of what we are increasingly knowing every day and how do pay attention to the user. I mean, this is again another commonplace, but we all talk to each other and these projects, for example, you know, let’s do this, let’s do that, we think this, we think that, but there’s that third grade teacher, you know, in the middle of western Colorado who has no resources, you know, who has all kinds of firewalls in her school, who has half a class of kids who do not speak English at home, whatever. What are we doing for that teacher in that context? So not only the—understanding of how we learn, more and more precisely and the application of that, but the understanding in a generous way about what is the context of learning in all sorts of—environments. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

July 2012