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Caleph Wilson

Connecting scientist mentors with students who have the desire to learn

Posted by Caleph Wilson

16-05-2013 14:38 CDT

Topics: personal stories

Every scientist has three key experiences that helped them on the road to a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM: 1) being born with a desire to learn; 2) having opportunity to apply STEM principles; and 3) guidance from an effective mentor. The desire to learn started early in our lives, and those of us who were lucky began to receive guidance while we were in school. As we navigated the various stages of our careers, all three experiences built upon each other. We scientists know the value of mentoring and providing opportunities to others. However, without a road map to community engagement, finding out how to give back to the community can be difficult.

Here is the good news: the skills that make us scientists transfer to working with students in the community! For example: whenever we want to solve an issue with a research project that is outside of our skill set, we simply locate a collaborator who has resources or a skill to meet that need. Scientists can take that same approach to engage the community. So, think about your approach to outreach like you approach a research project.

As always, projects start with questions. Let’s start with these in our quest to help students begin to learn about STEM:

  1. Does my institution, company or organization already have STEM outreach programs
  2. Are there faith-based or community groups that are promoting STEM by connecting scientists with students?
  3. How much time do I have in my schedule for community service?
  4. Are there other scientists I know who have engaged the community before?
  5. What are the expected outcomes of my engagement?

Opportunities to address the above questions arise constantly, and scientists have to be prepared to take advantage of them. For example, there are two well-established STEM outreach programs in my community. One is the Science Education Academy, which is a collaboration between Whiterock Baptist Church and the Ernest Everett Just Biomedical Society of the University of Pennsylvania. The other is iPRAXIS, which is a community-based organization that supports a city-wide science fair. For the last few years the members of the Community Service Committee of the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council at the University of Pennsylvania have served as science project mentors for middle school students in Philadelphia.

Science Education Academy matches graduate students and postdoc volunteers with elementary school students to introduce them to or reinforce STEM principles over the course of seven weeks. The main benefit of the program is that students from under-represented minority groups have access to scientists at a leading research institution. Moreover, a majority of the science mentors are from under-represented minority groups as well, providing needed role models. At the end of the mentoring cycle participants have a field exercise at Clark Park. Students have an opportunity to apply many of the principles learned in the classroom by exploring the park's environments. Over time, Science Education Academy has built a very strong relationship with students, parents, scientists and a faith-based organization.

Science Education Academy
Science Education Academy
Students perform experiments with simple machines (pulleys and levers) in the Science Education Academy.

The community organization iPRAXIS prepares students for science fair projects. Postdoctoral scientific volunteers, or “Scienteers,” visit science classes of area middle schools and mentor young people with developing science projects. Students are introduced to the standards of the scientific process, including background research, experimental design, the scientific method, notebook maintenance, and project execution. In addition to helping with science fair projects, Scienteers and other scientists serve as judges at the city-wide science fair. Each May iPRAXIS hosts an iFUNCTION, which is an awards program meant to recognize the students’ efforts and achievements.

Through iPRAXIS, postdoctoral scholars mentor high school students through science fair projects.

Programs like Science Education Academy and iPRAXIS are established avenues that facilitate connections between scientists and the community, but community service can also be achieved within smaller groups or on an individual level. To pursue this, take a few minutes to draft an e-mail to the principal and science teachers of your local elementary or middle schools. Ask if there are regular tutoring opportunities or other needs for their science classes. In many cases, schools may need assistance setting up science classroom or labs. Determining what is needed is the best way to identify what a scientist can do to help.

After the initial written communication, be sure to follow up with a visit to the school. Ask to tour the science facilities. After returning to work, scientists can determine what knowledge and materials will be helpful to area schools and communities. Surplus lab equipment, computers, software or office supplies can be donated to support STEM activities.

There are many ways to get involved -- just taking the first step of reaching out will often lead to a very good and lasting relationship between scientists and the community. Both sides have a desire to establish solid relationships to help students develop their interest in STEM!

See other posts from May 2013


Or read more blog entries about: personal stories


Doug: 05/16/2013 09:08 CDT

This is a wonderful post, and really grapples with the problem of how kids can be encouraged to exercise their scientific curiosity. As a senior university scientist who spends a lot of time in the public schools, I'll offer one slight clarification to the point that "the skills that make us scientists transfer to working with students in the community". Sometimes they don't. Talking to kids, especially elementary school kids, is different than talking to adults. I know many elementary school teachers who set up walls between community experts and their kids because, well, sometimes that expertise is not conveyed in a very kid friendly way. As a science professional, you might ask yourself the hard question of whether you really know how to talk with the kids you're volunteering to work with, and capture their attention. You might also forgive experienced teachers for what might seem as hesitation about inviting you in to work with their classes. That hesitation isn't because they distrust your knowledge, but because they might not be confident about your ability to work constructively with kids. The wall is permeable, but it's there. I give a lot of teacher workshops as well, and it has often occurred to me that volunteer workshops might be just as important. I should say that the reverse point is just as true. The skills that make us good at working with students in the community transfer to doing science. Why? Because a lot of doing science is communication, and especially advocacy for science. No disrespect to our leaders intended, but if you know how to capture the attention of ten year olds, you can do a pretty good job getting Congress excited about science. I try to teach that to my college students, and I'm delighted when they take the plunge, and end up in front of some kids talking about the science they love.

Bob Ware: 05/16/2013 10:35 CDT

A possible answer to Doug's concern may be a pre-science workshop for the scientist(s) and science teachers to teach the scientist(s) how to interact with the students. My wife is a teacher and that is an art form unique unto itself. Usually these works shops can be an after school or any during school, period(s) when the teachers are free. Possibly 2 or 3 times before the scientist(s) meet with the active classroom(s) for the special class. By that point they should know how to interact with the kids and let the teacher do the leading. The scientist(s) would lead the experiment work with the teacher explaining it as they go along. Also they would answer student questions in real time. They could even record the session for review and playback. Perhaps the PI could even return to help review the session at some point. That could only help to reinforce what they learned. Remember, be outgoing and friendly, not monotone and boring!

Bob Ware: 05/16/2013 10:41 CDT

Caleph -- Thanks for the interesting program! That sounds like an answer for many communities? Do you all push this out via publicity some how? Raleigh, NC (Wake County & Johnston County) could really use this type of a program, not to mention the entire State really needs this.

@HeyDrWilson: 05/17/2013 02:54 CDT

Hi Bob and Doug: Thank you, both for commenting on the post. Doug, you bring-up an excellent point. Both programs in the post have training workshops to prep volunteers. The point about 'transferable skills' is meant to get scientist to see community engagement in their language. So, there are effective approaches to answer the question of what is the best way for me to get involved. Building relationships with schools, parents and caregivers is the key. Yes, it does take time because as scientist we are used to communicating on an 'adult' level. Frankly, many of us are horrible at communicating to our, school kids offer a challenge. Bob, I would encourage you to reach out to SEA and iPRAXIS to get tips on how to build similar programs specific for you area. The publicity for each program is growing. After you get going invite politicians/celebrities to the programs. Both programs in Philly have interactions with US Rep Chaka Fattah. He is one of the strongest STEM supporters in Congress. I would also encourage you to develop local group to have #Sciplains. Give science talks to the general public. One the best ways to learn to communicate is doing these or elevator pitches. Feel free to e-mail me or follow on Twitter or Facebook. Best, Caleph

Bob Ware: 05/17/2013 07:57 CDT

Caleph - Thanks Sir. I'll run this by my wife and some other teacher friends I have from my church. All the best to you and your efforts.

Doug: 05/18/2013 05:30 CDT

Good discussion. I think Bob's idea of a lesson plan involving both the scientist and the teacher is a good one. This is a win-win proposition, where the teacher learns the science, and the scientist learns about challenges with and strategies for student learning. The learning goes both ways, and the scientist needs to admit that. And, Caleph, you put it very well that the key is relationship building, and putting community engagement in a language that scientists can understand. It's not about a scientist rolling in, telling the teacher to get out of the way, and blazing forth teaching science. That's not constructive. By the way, I was horrified to see the news media expound on the Kiera Wilmot story as evidence of a "racist legal system". We are told that she was just "mixing some household chemicals". Like, sure. That misses the whole point. By the way, if they want to call muriatic acid (which is what Kiera may have been using) a "household chemical", they're welcome to do so, but calling it that doesn't restore the vision of someone who got it splashed in their eye. It would seem that the popular press needs some scientific education themselves. But we knew that ...

CrDanby: 05/18/2013 08:24 CDT

Here is another Link for a STEM Program. We had a very interesting Conversation between Students from Windsor Ontario, & Belfast Ireland.

Bob Ware: 05/19/2013 08:11 CDT

Doug -- Thanks for the support. I have already sent the program concept to my teacher friend in the Johnston County, NC school system. I'm waiting for her response. Hopefully it'll be a favorable one. It's nice to see that Caleph is on the right track. Crdanby -- That is one very nice setup the school is part of. The robotics building is what NASA does here also. That program is across the country. (not sure about the future due to the budget issues we have now) Some of those students who were in the robotics contests to show how well their robots actually work have gone on to work for NASA as engineers. So these types of programs do in fact work. A counter part extreme that also generated a NASA engineer was the original Star Trek series episode Spocks' Brain. The alien starship had ion propulsion. The kid watching that episode (not me) went onto actually figure out how to build that spacecrafts propulsion system. It has traveled to multiple asteroids. Another group took the cloaking device and actually figured out how to build one that actually works. However it leaves enough of a minor distortion up close that one can tell something (but not seen) has been cloaked. It's a start. Anyway the point being inspiration can come from imagination as well as a great STEM type program of some type.

@HeyDrWilson: 05/22/2013 01:44 CDT

Hi Doug, CrDanby and Bob: I appreciate the comments! Yes, sometimes experts can be…well, experts. No one likes a know it all. Anytime scientist seek to help, it is critical that we ask what is needed. I suspect that is the problem most of the time. Getting into schools, houses of worship, community organization, etc…is not like a plumber coming out to fix a leak our upgrade pipes. We are attempting to help children. So, connecting is a must. As for Kiera Wilmot, I published article about her situation. [ ]. Yes, her ‘science project’ should be punished. The issue is the magnitude of the initial sanctions. Unfortunately, ‘zero-tolerance’ has a disproportionate impact on special education, poor and minority students. It is hard to see it in Ms. Wilmot’s case. Had she been a middle of the road student it would have been ‘water under the bridge.’ Her excellence and leadership up to the moment that she started that ‘experiment’ meant that disproportionate punishment would not have happened. Ms. Wilmot had not had discipline issues prior. Here’s a report and news article on how this situation is impacting children in MS, my home state. [ ] [ ]. Overall, comprehensive community engagement is good for the entire community. The underserved, as well as, those that help learn and grow! Best, Caleph

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