A Passion for Outreach Can Do More Good Than You Know

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog, science outreach

For my final post, I want to talk about a passion I pursue outside of the lab: outreach. A long-term goal I have is to encourage young women to pursue degrees in STEM and ultimately increase female representation in academia. To combat this widespread lack of diversity across the STEM fields, I try to focus my outreach projects to promote interest in chemistry to females and other minorities.

I have always devoted myself to outreach. During my time as an undergraduate at Boston University (BU), I was a part of Chemia, a chemistry student-run organization. My responsibilities included offering free peer tutoring, organizing events such as research talks by professors, guest lectures from chemists working in industry, visits to local pharmaceutical companies, and fun outreach functions to excite the BU and Boston communities about chemistry. As a graduate student, I was excited to learn about the wide variety of outreach organizations in the Chicago area, many of which focused on STEM. However, Brooke Schuster, another third-year chemistry graduate student at the University of Chicago (UChicago), and I decided we wanted to embellish what was already available.

Designing Our Own Outreach Program

Brooke and I envisioned creating an outreach program that would allow middle school students to interact with UChicago chemistry Ph.D. students on campus. We wanted them to experience a small piece of what our day-to-day life is like for them to better envision what it is like to be a scientist. To achieve this goal, we teamed up with the Chicago Pre-College Science and Engineering Program (ChiS&E), a nonprofit organization in Chicago founded by Kenneth Hill. This program offers Saturday STEM classes for children in kindergarten through 9th grade. Working with this organization, Brooke and I proposed to create a new spring program that would consist of four classes focused on general chemistry, organic chemistry, medicine, and biotechnology. These courses were designed to introduce 8th-grade students to advanced chemistry topics that are not part of their current school curriculum. Brooke and I oversaw the curriculum design, live chemistry demos, and student participation in their own experiments, with the help of eight chemistry graduate student volunteers. Now that Spring is quickly approaching, Brooke and I are enthusiastic about commencing the second year of our outreach program. We hope this program will inspire some of the students involved to seek higher degrees and careers in STEM fields.

Why Do Outreach?

As I previously discussed last month, it can be hard for graduate students to convince themselves to leave the lab. However, just a few hours of outreach can have a dramatic effect on your community. For example, one of the largest barriers for women and other minorities in STEM is the stereotype threat. A study from 1983 investigated “Stereotypic images of the scientist” with “the draw‐a‐scientist test.” They found that most children tend to draw scientists as an old white man in a lab coat, a stereotype that is still very much alive. Yet, this stereotype is less prevalent in kindergarteners, who have fewer media and social exposure to the topic. Hence, it is vital to increase the representation of female and other minority scientists, especially for young children. Fighting the stereotype threat through nurturing of girls and other underrepresented minorities interest in STEM will help combat the “leaky pipeline” we are currently facing.

There are countless other ways to get involved with outreach besides working with children. Becoming engaged with science policy, volunteering at a museum, or even judging local science fairs are all great ways to enhance the scientific community as a whole. Pick something that you are passionate about and remember that even doing outreach only one day per year can have an impact!

Thanks for reading,

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