Teachers’ techie

Liz Peterson has many duties as associate director of The Teaching Center. Now she can add “giant screen finder” to the list.

Last summer, Peterson worked with the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts to renovate Steinberg Auditorium. The auditorium had no chalkboard or whiteboard, and no projector or screen. But it did have an immense white wall at its front, which one professor used to display 35-millimeter slides.

Liz Peterson (left) and Regina Frey, Ph.D., examine renderings of molecules shown on a flat-screen monitor and SMART Overlay in Eads Hall. “Liz understands the necessity of having technology that is easy to use and intuitive,” Frey says. “She is also very aware that teachers have only a short amount of time to get the technology up and running for each class period.”

Peterson’s job: to come up with a new auditorium design that would allow the professor to project his images at a similar size as well as fill the needs of other classes that might use the auditorium.

To install chalkboards at the front of the auditorium, Peterson had to find a screen big enough to compensate for the loss of the wall. But the vendor from which the University typically buys projector screens didn’t offer one large enough. After some scheming and searching (“Sewing two projector screens together wasn’t an option,” Peterson says), she located a 12-by-21.3-foot projector screen and also found a projector that showed images in high-enough resolution to display the large images.

Problem solved, thanks to Peterson, who, along with her many other roles at The Teaching Center, is an integral member of the Classroom Monitoring Committee (CMC), a group that manages the nearly 100 University-pooled classrooms. Peterson helps design and renovate classrooms to make it possible to install technology such as projectors, SMART boards, computers and GIS software.

But her duties don’t end there. Peterson trains and assists faculty who wish to use technology in their teaching, and she keeps up with the latest technology, such as tablet PCs and high-definition television, and determines how each could be used to keep the University on the cutting edge of education.

“When you talk with people around the University about The Teaching Center, Liz is one of the first people mentioned,” says Regina Frey, Ph.D., the center’s director and senior lecturer in chemistry in Arts & Sciences. “Working with our two technical staff members — Mike Floyd and Alan Wieter — Liz has helped to make technology more intuitive to use for the faculty and has seamlessly incorporated the technology into the classroom without sacrificing the traditional teaching needs of the faculty member.”

Though Peterson never has worked as a teacher, she is conscious of faculty members’ needs and serves them well.

“Liz understands the necessity of having technology that is easy to use and intuitive,” Frey says. “She is also very aware that teachers have only a short amount of time to get the technology up and running for each class period.”

Peter Kastor, Ph.D., associate professor of history in Arts & Sciences, agrees.

“Liz is extremely easy to work with,” he says. “Part of that is a matter of personality, and part is the degree to which she understands the pedagogical goals of faculty. That’s very different from just understanding the technology. She clearly understands a professor’s language.”

The California girl

As successful as she has been assisting faculty, as a young girl Peterson — the daughter of a hardware, shoe and belt salesman — didn’t foresee herself working in higher education. After graduating from Kirkwood High School in 1976, Peterson decided to take up the family business: sales.

“Sales was very male-dominated,” she says. “I wanted to break into it.”

Peterson majored in speech communications at the University of Missouri-St. Louis “to help me better interact with customers,” she says. After earning a bachelor’s degree, Peterson moved to Los Angeles at the insistence of her best friend, who had relocated to L.A. after college. Peterson, a lifelong Midwesterner, got a job selling copiers and began relishing life as a Californian.

“I loved living by the beach,” Peterson says. “I learned how to windsurf and kayak; I was part of an outrigger canoe team and crewed large boats. I think people who grew up in California probably don’t take as much advantage as people who come out there to live. For those of us who grew up in the Midwest, California was like a big playground.”

Liz Peterson

Education: B.A., speech communications, 1980, University of Missouri-St. Louis; M.A., mass communications, 1988, Webster University

Family: husband, Mike Schmidt; son, Matthew, 17; daughter, Nelli, 14; and three Shih Tzus: Cuddles, Reagan and Louie

Favorite book: “Gone with the Wind”

First job: Kentucky Fried Chicken. “It was within walking distance of the house,” she says. “With seven kids in the family, you could never be guaranteed a ride.”

Home is: Ballwin, Mo., though Peterson grew up in Kirkwood, Mo., and also has lived in Columbia, Mo., and Los Angeles

As much as she enjoyed her playtime, after a year in L.A., Peterson realized she wasn’t passionate about her job as a copier saleswoman. Two of her apartment-mates, both engineers who worked at Ford Aerospace, suggested she apply for a contracts management position at Ford. After a series of interviews, Peterson was offered a position and ventured into a new career field.

Still, after settling into the new job, Peterson noticed Ford and other aerospace companies were going through some rough times as government contracts ended and co-workers lost their jobs.

After five years in contracts management, Peterson made a difficult decision: She moved back to St. Louis and applied to graduate school.

“I loved California, but I loved security even more,” she says. “I thought it would be best for me to go home and get a master’s degree that would lead to a job in a field that I was more interested in.”

The technology whiz

With the hopes of breaking into television or radio broadcasting, Peterson enrolled in Webster University’s graduate media communications program. She earned her master’s degree in mass communications in 1988 and began working at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work’s Video Center.

“I was interested in video production, and the job provided an all-encompassing experience where I got to write, videotape and edit mental health videos,” Peterson says.

While working at the Brown School, Peterson noticed more and more faculty requesting audio-visual equipment in their classrooms. Her duties expanded to ensuring that the audio-visual needs of classrooms, colloquia and special events were filled.

In 1995, Peterson moved to The Teaching Center to address the audio-visual needs of the University-pooled classrooms. Her job expanded to oversee the introduction and use of technology in classrooms, and she has been involved in 75 major, minor and technology-enhancing classroom renovations while at The Teaching Center.

“When I first started at The Teaching Center, only two classrooms had video projectors in them,” Peterson says. “Now we have more than 85 fully equipped instructional technology classrooms.”

In an effort to help faculty integrate technology into the classroom, Peterson helped organize the first ITeach symposium, an event that provides an opportunity for faculty members to share ideas and insights on teaching and technology, in 2002. Her efforts won her the 2002 Arts & Sciences Dean’s Award. ITeach now is a biennial event, and Peterson still plays a significant role in coordinating it with Frey.

Through her efforts to introduce faculty to technology and assist them in its use, Peterson has helped transform technology from a novelty to the norm in WUSTL classrooms.

“When I first arrived at the University, technology was available but required a fair amount of legwork in terms of planning in advance and coordination,” says Kastor, who came to WUSTL in 2004. “With the system we have now, I go into a classroom, and everything I need is there; it’s reliable, and the systems used are consistent and intuitive. Liz has been a crucial player in this transformation.”

The family lady

Peterson met her husband, Mike Schmidt, in 1998 through an Internet dating service. He asked her out, and she accepted but got nervous and later cancelled.

(From left) Liz Peterson; daughter, Nelli; son, Matthew; and husband, Mike Schmidt.

“A couple of months later, I called him up,” she laughs. “He was so nice and wasn’t mad. I asked him if we could go out again.” Ever the gentleman, Schmidt said yes. Their second first date was a success, and the couple married in 2000.

Both Peterson and her husband wanted children and, while they were engaged, decided to begin the process of adopting kids in need through the foster care system.

“Everyone told us it would take years to get children,” she says, “but before we were even finished with the seven-week class, two kids became available.”

Matthew, 9, and Nelli, 6, a brother and sister who had been in foster care for three years, arrived with all their worldly belongings packed in 20 plastic bags.

Adjusting from a quiet house to one filled with two energetic, school-age children would be a challenge for any new couple, and it was no different for Peterson and her husband. Still, “once Matthew and Nelli arrived, our life became that much more complete,” Peterson says. “Mike and I can’t imagine life without them.”

Just as it’s difficult to imagine The Teaching Center without Peterson.