SARSEF CEO Retires: Looking at Kathleen Bethel’s Impact by the Numbers

SARSEF CEO Retires: Looking at Kathleen Bethel’s Impact by the Numbers

By Betsy Bolding

95,000 students, 2,147 research projects, 664 community volunteers, double the number of girls. 

Numbers can tell a powerful story and illustrate the successful ten years of Kathleen Bethel’s tenure as the first CEO of SARSEF. 

From 2009, when she officially took the helm of the Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Foundation, this retired public school administrator had no idea how much she would change SARSEF, and our community. 

The public-school setting encompassed Kathleen’s world for 33 years. However, after retiring, Bethel agreed to don a CEO hat. She strode confidently into her new environment, networking with business and nonprofit leaders, making friends in the corporate world and tackling the technology sector. Touting SARSEF, she charmed all, communicating the message to future employers that SARSEF’s mission – teaching kids to ask questions, think critically, learn from their mistakes and experience success – is basic to ensuring successful future employees. 

SARSEF’s sheer numbers doubled in 10 years. Yet, the more exciting news is the numbers of girls participating at the SARSEF Fair increased 83%. This explosion of female participants resulted from Kathleen’s intentional focus, creating programs specifically geared to mentoring and encouraging girls. 

Professional education through outreach to teachers, parents, and students at Title One schools, was another of Kathleen’s calculated efforts to increase diversity, bolstering the number of minority students finding success through problem solving and critical thinking. 

Through its Education and Outreach program created by Kathleen, the staff now logs thousands of miles each year, from Yuma to Safford and Nogales to Florence, visiting schools to convince students, teachers and parents that science is both possible, and fun. In 137 schools in 7 Arizona counties, a total of 18,369 students in Title I schools are directly taught, and another 43,366 indirectly. Her dream came to life.

As a leading STEM education organization with the basic tenet of “putting kids first”,
SARSEF grew exponentially, reaching 95,000 youngsters each year. It is highly recognized in the community, and the nation, for its focus on diversity through programs such as: ACES Camp for Middle School Girls, AZ STEM Adventure, Teacher Professional Development and Parent Science Nights.

During Kathleen’s time at the helm, SARSEF moved from a UA dorm room to a welcoming office suite with space for workshops and a science lab. It grew from one paid employee to 5.5 staff, many contractors, and a Board of Directors that expanded its knowledge and governance responsibilities, exponentially. 

Further, under Kathleen’s leadership, SARSEF quadrupled its budget and increased the number of students served through SARSEF programs by 47%. The number of individual donors and corporate/foundation grants increased tenfold, allowing SARSEF to reach more students throughout our community. 

In 2019, SARSEF’s annual Fair filled the TCC Exhibition Halls. Our community’s devotion to SARSEF was evidenced by the 475 judges, 189 volunteers, 57 corporations and organizations, and $60,000 in cash prizes – all of which encouraged K-12 students’ interest in solving problems in our community. 

Compared to 2009, when no scholarships were offered, Kathleen facilitates 22 scholarships each year, 12 directly to the University of Arizona. And whereas most Fairs from around the world win at the 10-15% rate at the International competition, SARSEF students average four-times that rate. 

For its ability to increase diversity, expand programs and financial successes, Kathleen and SARSEF received numerous honors and awards. Kathleen attributes this to the capable staff and Board of Directors. However, these entities acknowledge her modesty and rightly credit these successes to her leadership, vision, passion and devotion to “our kids”. 

The numbers add up to a rousing testament to Kathleen Bethel’s transformation of the SARSEF she inherited to the powerhouse it is today. As she ends her 10-year love affair with SARSEF and the many youngsters whose lives she has touched, Kathleen Bethel’s imprint is undeniably a legacy our community will not soon forget.

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