Sue Ellen Walbridge’s government career has been defined by an important mission—encouraging middle and high school students to excel in science and math and to pursue careers in those fields.
By all accounts, Walbridge’s time as a federal employee has been a big success.
For almost two decades, Walbridge has been the heart and soul of the National Science Bowl, nurturing the federal program at the start, almost singlehandedly keeping it alive during budget cuts in the mid-1990s, and then building it into one of the nation’s premier academic competitions for middle and high school students.
A program analyst at the Department of Energy (DOE), Walbridge annually assembles a nationwide grassroots network of some 6,000 volunteers, oversees more than 100 regional competitions involving 20,000 students from 1,800 schools across the country, and handles the details for the national finals that take place every spring in Washington, D.C.
More than 300,000 students have taken part in the competition since 1991, and many participants say their involvement was a key factor in their decision to pursue a career in science.
“She has created this successful, impactful and visible federal program literally by herself and through the force of her personality,” said Patricia Dehmer, the deputy director of science programs at the DOE.
The science competition is part of a broader educational effort by the Department of Energy to create opportunities for students in science as a means of improving the competitiveness of U.S. industry. During the past decade, numerous reports have cited decreased interest among American students in science, technology, engineering and math, with the nation lagging well behind many other developed countries in these fields.
Walbridge, who has spina bifida and has been confined to a wheelchair her entire life, is described by colleagues as someone who is dedicated, smart and brings a positive attitude to her work and life.
“All of the men in my family served in the armed forces. I would have joined the military if I had not been disabled,” she said. “I have chosen a different form of service. I’ve always had a very strong belief that my role has been to give and to serve. That is why I stayed in the federal government.”
The Science Bowl is set up like the television show Jeopardy, with students quizzed in a fast paced question-and-answer format. Competing teams, comprised of four students and one alternate, are tested in biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, general science and earth science. The competition starts in the local schools, moves to regional events and then to the national competition.
Last November, First Lady Michelle Obama went to the Energy Department to attend a practice session for students taking part in a regional Science Bowl competition, and used the occasion to single out Walbridge for her contribution.
“So I want us to take a moment to recognize Sue Ellen Walbridge for her terrific work,” said the first lady. “Look, I think we all know this is something pretty special—to start from something so small and grow it into something so big and so meaningful.”
“You are touching the lives of thousands and thousands of young people, and that should give you some level of peace and satisfaction and pride,” the first lady said. “We are all so very proud of you.”
Walbridge said it has been “very rewarding to have an opportunity to provide a venue for students to shine,” adding that it is “one of the greatest things you can do.” Walbridge also said running the Science Bowl has not been a job, but “a joy and a passion.”
Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the Science Bowl has reached tens of thousands of students and has “helped get young people excited about math and science, a critical foundation for American leadership in the 21st century.”
“Sue Ellen has demonstrated that one person can make a difference,” Chu said.