Virginia Shepherd and Charles Brau: Promoting STEM Education

Charles Brau and Virginia Shepherd, Photo by Susan Urmy

Couple endows directorship of Peabody’s Center for Science Outreach at Peabody

Virginia Shepherd never doubted her calling in life.

“I knew in eighth grade that I wanted to go into science,” she says. “I don’t know where it came from, but that was what I was going to do.”

Eventually, her education and training led to a tenured faculty position as a research scientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Nashville’s Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Early in her career, Shepherd attended a national meeting where top scientists, including renowned biochemist Bruce Alberts, urged the importance of participating in science education at the K–12 level.

She returned to campus with a new passion. In 2000 she launched the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach, which promotes STEM education in partnership with local public schools, focusing on cultivating curiosity, discovery and analytical thinking in young children.

Nearly 20 years later, Shepherd and her husband, Charles Brau, emeritus professor of physics, are working to advance the center’s future by endowing the Shepherd–Brau Director of the Center for Science Outreach at Peabody College. Their gift was created through Vanderbilt’s Faculty Fellowship Challenge, in which the university matches gifts of $500,000 or more to endow positions like directorships for rising faculty stars.

“I think Peabody is prepared to become the premiere science education school in the world.”

—Charles Brau

“The CSO can’t continue without a director,” says Shepherd, who is now research professor of teaching and learning and professor of education, emerita. “We both agreed that supporting a directorship would provide stability for the center to grow.”

Under Shepherd’s direction the CSO became an international leader in science education. She spearheaded innovative programs including Scientist in the Classroom, Day of Discovery, the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, and the Interdisciplinary Science and Research program, all still thriving today. She and Brau also ran the Kids and Computers program from 2002 to 2008. Shepherd retired in 2018 and had been serving as director, emerita, of the CSO.

Key to the center’s success have been four critical ingredients: “A home in a research-focused university, strong public-school partnerships, supportive university leadership, and a founder with a clear vision,” Brau says.

Shepherd cites the center’s forward momentum as motivation to give financially. After winning the 2018 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, Jennifer Ufnar, BS’94, research assistant professor of teaching and learning, was named by the CSO as its new director. Additionally, center personnel soon will move into new work space in Peabody’s renovated Mayborn–Home Economics complex.

“It’s heartening to see this burgeoning of interest,” Brau says. “I think Peabody is prepared to become the premiere science education school in the world.”