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Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Catherine Olmer

2006 W. George Pinnell Award for Outstanding Service

Catherine Olmer image

Catherine Olmer

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Professor of Physics
College of Arts and Sciences
University Graduate School
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1979
B.A., Boston University, 1970
M.Phil., Yale University, 1973
Ph.D., Yale University, 1976

Hundreds of parents watch their kids' eyes light up at Bloomington's WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology each week as they scale the Grapevine Climber, marvel at the sofa-sized bubbles in the Bubble-Airium, and check out new exhibits such as the "Kinetic Contraption." Few know that Cathy Olmer was instrumental in the creation of the museum.

Olmer, a nuclear physicist and a professor of physics at Indiana University Bloomington, was part of the team that created Wonderlab in 1994. Since the museum's inception, she has acted as its executive director, securing nearly all of WonderLab's 55 grants to date. During 1998-2002, WonderLab operated out of a small downtown store and welcomed a total of 68,000 visitors over the 5-year period. In 2003, WonderLab opened its new permanent museum, welcoming almost 68,000 visitors in just the first year of operation. Visitors to WonderLab in 2005 came from more than 70 Indiana counties, 45 states other than Indiana as well as other countries.

"WonderLab is certainly the most successful outreach effort ever mounted by an Indiana University faculty member. I will go so far as to say that it is one of the most successful programs of this type initiated by any faculty member anywhere," says James Musser, professor and chair of IU's Physics Department.

WonderLab's mission is to "provide opportunities where people of all ages, especially children, can experience the wonder and excitement of science through hands-on experiences that spark curiosity, encourage exploration, facilitate discovery, and foster learning."

Under Olmer's direction, WonderLab has been named "Organization of the Year" by the Commission for Downtown Bloomington in 2000, was named "Attraction of the Year" by the Bloomington Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2003, received a certificate of recognition for "enriching the lives of children and families in the Bloomington community" from the South Central Association for the Education of Young Children in 1998, and was honored with a Downtown Revitalization Award as the "Best Special Event" for its hands-on science outreach event at the Bloomington Convention Center in 1997.

"Professor Olmer has shared the joys, rewards, excitement, and challenges of science with university students," says Margaret Jean Intons-Person, professor emerita, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciencesat IU. "Over the past ten years, she has enlarged this vision to include 'students' of all ages from throughout south central Indiana at Wonderlab. These activities have had beneficial and far-reaching effects for science education at a time when [our nation] needs to attract more young people into scientific careers."

Olmer's contributions to science and academia also go far beyond the expansion of WonderLab. She designed and teaches a physics class for elementary education majors, to provide these future teachers not only with a background in physical sciences but also with hands-on methods and activities that enable children to experience the excitement of science. Olmer has chaired critical committees including the IU Faculty Board of Review, the Bloomington Faculty Council Educational Policies Committee and the Task Force on Teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences.

She has also served on the College of Arts and Sciences Policy Committee. For many years, Olmer served as director of the annual Department of Physics Open House, the department's banner community outreach event that annually attracts more than a thousand students, teachers, and parents. She also created a nuclear physics-based Research Opportunities for Undergraduates program that has been successful at attracting female students.

She was named Bloomington Woman of the Year by the Bloomington City Council in 2002; received the "Women in Technology" award from the Network of Women in Business, Women and High Tech, and the Lilly Women's Network in 2000; two Teaching Excellence Recognition Awards from Indiana University in 1999 and 2000; and a "Phenomenal Women of Bloomington" award from the Bloomington Voice magazine in 1997, among several other awards.

"Catherine Olmer has distinguished herself through her service to all of us, her colleagues at the university, her colleagues in Bloomington, and indeed, her colleagues throughout the world in nuclear physics," says Bennet Brabson, physics professor emeritus, Indiana University.

Musser says that Olmer's service activities focus on "one of the key issues facing the physical sciences in the United States: imparting a sense of excitement and wonder of the physical world at an early age that may lead to an interest in a career in the sciences in some cases, and further support for the cause of science in general."