Portrait of Debra Wolf

Deb Wolf, Director of Education and Public Relations and IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) Program Manager at Sanford Lab

Photo by Matthew Kapust

Finding the Why: Wolf takes on new role at Sanford Lab

In newly created role, Wolf will lead Education, Communication and IDEA efforts at Sanford Lab

For Deb Wolf, every endeavor has a Why, a What and a How. Why are we doing this—what is the purpose, driving force and desired impact? Once the Why is determined, Wolf has learned, the What and the How follow more naturally. What actions must be taken and what content must be created? How do we structure the project and deliver the content?

In 2018, when Wolf became the Director of Education & Outreach (E&O) at Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab), the team’s Why was clear: “Every student deserves high-quality, engaging, rigorous and equitable science learning opportunities.”

Since 2015, the E&O team sought to support that standard. The team created curriculum units, hosted field trips and developed K-12 school presentations, bringing Sanford Lab’s unique science to students in the state and region. By 2018, E&O had built a robust library of science content and educational tools. When Wolf joined the team, a new effort was coming into focus.

To fully realize their Why, the team realized they needed to do more to support classroom teachers directly: “For our impact to be transformative—to help students realize their identity as capable science learners—we had to figure out how to best support educators,” Wolf said.

Under Wolf’s leadership, the E&O team amplified support networks and opportunities for regional STEM educators through professional development (PD) programs, even creating entirely virtual PD programs in the summer of 2020.

“The feedback that we've received from teachers has been really, really positive. They walk away from those professional development experiences truly transformed,” Wolf said. “It’s changing how they instruct.”

Last month, Wolf brought her dogged intentionality to a new role at Sanford Lab: Director of Education and Public Relations and IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) Program Manager.

The Why of IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access)

Created in 2021, this role includes a strong focus on enhancing IDEA at Sanford Lab. Executive Director Mike Headley said the IDEA Program Manager role is a step toward a fully realized IDEA Program.

“Sanford Lab is becoming more and more of an international laboratory every day, and we want to ensure that we’re providing a welcoming place for everyone,” Headley said.

The Why for Sanford Lab’s IDEA program is embedded in Sanford Lab’s Core Values, specifically in Care for Others, which states: “We embrace and honor the fundamental value and dignity of all individuals. We listen knowing everyone has something to offer and to learn.”

While this Core Value reflects the facility’s long-standing commitment to diversity, the formation of an IDEA Program demonstrates the facility’s resolve to develop and enhance that commitment into the future.

“IDEA is proactive,” Wolf said. “Before a new policy is approved, we have to ask, ‘What does this policy look like through the lens of equity?’ Before an educational curriculum unit is piloted, we ask, ‘Is this lesson plan inclusive for students with diverse backgrounds?’ IDEA needs to be the lens through which we view all facets of our work.”

The Why of Education and Public Outreach

In this new role, Wolf will also lead two existing teams: the E&O Department (a partnership between Sanford Lab and Black Hills State University) and the Sanford Lab Communications Department.

“We want these departments to move forward together with a consistent strategy,” Headley said. “Whether we are working with students, teachers or the general public, we want to make sure we are creating meaningful connections with a broad, diverse audience.”

From Wolf’s perspective, these two departments find a common Why in Sanford Lab’s mission “to inspire learning across generations.”

“How do you take something quite complicated—like neutrinos or dark matter research—and turn it into something bite-sized? How do you make your audience curious? How do you make them want to know more? How do you make them care?” Wolf said. “These questions are relevant in both the classroom and the broader community.”

Wolf has more than 20 years of experience as an educator. She has taught in California, Nevada and South Dakota, and was an instructional coach for early-career science teachers. In 2017, Wolf became the Education Innovationist for the South Dakota Department of Education. There, she helped build the SDMath/SDSci Leadership program. As Director of E&O at Sanford Lab, Wolf forged partnerships with the South Dakota Department of Education, the SDMath/SDSci Leadership program, SD EPSCOR and SD universities.

“Deb is a strong leader with a wealth of experience in K-12 education and a strong background in IDEA,” Headley said. “We are proud to have Deb leading these efforts as Sanford Lab continues to grow and impact communities in South Dakota and around the world.”