Getting involved in STEM outreach
Hello, readers. Kerry, here. I'm the creator of Bolded Science. In addition to heading this collaborative blog, a second science communication initiative I started is a STEM education outreach program at my university. Thus far, I've neglected to blog about my outreach and would like to rectify that problem today. I truly believe STEM outreach is an important enterprise that more, if not all, scientists should get involved in. If I can convince just one scientist to volunteer in outreach programs, I would consider this post a success!
What is STEM outreach?
STEM outreach is the act of educating communities that do not easily access STEM education or a specific subset of STEM education. I like to phrase it as scientists reaching outside of their laboratory bubble to engage with their communities.
Examples of outreach activities include:
Who does STEM outreach benefit?
STEM outreach can engage several populations. Although most outreach programs are geared towards classroom students, other groups that can benefit from STEM outreach are seniors, the general population, religious groups, after-school programs, and young scientists.
The scientific community also benefits tremendously from participating in STEM outreach. Firstly, STEM outreach reduces the mystique of science and promotes scientific literacy in the general population, thereby fostering trust between scientists and non-scientists. Secondly, it provides an opportunity for scientists to hone their science communication skills. Although most scientists are well-practiced at speaking academically, science communication to general audiences is a significant skill often neglected in our training. Lastly, volunteering is rewarding and fun! It's an excellent activity for your mental health as a researcher.
Why did I start a STEM outreach program at my school?
I research at a medical school campus that does not educate undergraduate students, meaning the graduate students are not teaching assistants. To provide teaching opportunities for graduate students, the university has a handful of programs that offer internships to high school and undergraduate students under the supervision of graduate students.
Some of my coworkers and I have participated in these programs. Thereafter, it became apparent that these programs partnered with schools from affluent backgrounds. In talking to some of the high school interns, I learned that many of the students were the children of professors, scientists, and doctors. They seemed to already have connections in the scientific field; half of them had previously interned for scientists or shadowed doctors.
It got me thinking, why are we specifically partnering with these schools? My university is geographically located between two cities primarily inhabited by the working class and people of color. Why are we not working with those schools?
A few students and I designed a program, Young Explorers in Science (YES for short), to reach out to school districts with lower socioeconomic and diverse backgrounds. We had three goals:
1. Bring the science to them: Perform hands-on experiments in classrooms.
2. Mentor: Host career and college discussions with high school students to guide their potential scientific careers.
3. Bring the students to us: Organize field trips for local high schools so they can see the laboratories and participate in activities. (Unfortunately, this initiative was canceled due to COVID).
Providing a near-peer experience.
Sometimes, I receive skepticism about graduate students giving career advice, and that full-fledged scientists are better for the job. However, YES intentionally enlists graduate students as volunteers because we provide a near-peer experience. K-12 students can envision themselves as graduate students much easier than being a tenured PI. Graduate students can more accurately recollect and advise on early career experiences such as transitioning from high school to college, navigating the financial burden of being a student, and choosing a major.
How you can volunteer in STEM outreach
Studies show that involvement in science outside of the classroom is correlated with students choosing to pursue a STEM career. Furthermore, early STEM experiences foster confidence and problem-solving skills in students. STEM outreach is a simple way for scientists to help nurture the pipeline of incoming scientists.
What I enjoy most about volunteering for YES is that small efforts can have large impacts on a students' perception of their future selves. It's hard to explain how it feels when you connect with a student in a meaningful way. So, I guess if you'd like to understand what that feeling is like, get out there and volunteer in STEM outreach yourself!