I really enjoy doing science outreach and I have been doing it in various forms since middle school. It is great to be a Penn State, where there are so many ways to get involved in science outreach. I want to highlight a few opportunities for our CIDD community. You can help with Science U summer camps, DiscoveryU camps, mentor undergraduates and young graduates in your own labs or sign up to mentor undergraduates you normally might not meet. In my case, I am paired with a talented undergrad through the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, and we meet about once a month. You can even go farther off campus – volunteering at Discovery Space or signing up to be a penpal in the popular Letters to a Pre-Scientist program (it’s fun to get mail!!).
For the past two years, one of the outreach days I look forward to the most all year is when I serve as a mentor for the Expanding Your Horizons in STEM Career Day, typically held in late January at Penn State.
This one-day event aims to engage young female students in grades 6-12, a crucial time when studies have shown a drop off in female interest in science (still a vigorous area of research! You can read more here and here). You can volunteer to work behind the scenes, to lead a workshop with your colleagues, or to be a mentor. As a mentor, I meet the girls and escort them around campus to three science workshops, have lunch with them, and chat with them as much as I can about what life is like as a graduate student in science and what life can be like working as a scientist. I also listen to the inspiring advice from the keynote and panel speakers throughout the day about their experiences in science….and knock off some items on my bucket list –like holding a giant walking stick insect! (I was not ready to hold the hissing cockroach on display…)
This year, like last year, there was enough excitement in the air to keep us warm despite the low January temperatures and snowflakes. In the morning, one of my mentees from last year recognized me and came up to say hi and grab a hug! It is always amazing to see how just a few sentences or one afternoon with someone can really have an impact on their lives that they remember well beyond the event. We started with a plenary from Olivia the founder of Lab Candy. She told her story of starting Lab Candy from one pair of pink, bedazzled lab goggles and grew it into a company with tie-dye lab coats and a storybook about Ava, a young scientist. In addition to weaving a great story, she told of the ups and downs of her scientific and business journey with great take home lessons for all the girls. After the plenary, my group learned about medical professions (doctors, nurses, physician assistants) and performed heart ultrasounds, learned about cyber-attacks and cryptography, and finally learned about magnets and the many materials in which we use them. We closed the day with a panel of female graduate students and faculty from Penn State answering questions from the over 130 girls who attended.
This annual event always re-energizes my passion for science and it is so fun to be around others discovering something cool about science for the first time. Even better – the impact of this event on the girls is visible. According to the Penn State Eberly College of Science Outreach Office, the majority of girls reported that not only did they enjoy the event and would recommend it to a friend, but that they gained confidence in their skills in science, a better understanding of a what a career in science is like, and have increased interest in pursuing a degree in science. What a difference outreach can make!