Mentoring Youth by Making Science Fun

Junior Science ClubFour years ago, Northwestern University graduate students Julianne Hatfield and Stephanie Rangel began volunteering with Science Club, an after-school science education initiative for underprivileged youth. The club has been run since 2009 by Science in Society, Northwestern’s science outreach and public engagement program. Given their positive experience with Science Club, Hatfield and Rangel launched Junior Science Club last summer, a new branch of the program serving 4th to 6th graders in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood that meets after school twice a month. Hatfield and Rangel reflect on how these volunteer teaching opportunities have perfectly coalesced with their Ph.D. programs and inspired their students to be more engaged in learning about science.

We are in a room filled with 15 buzzing elementary school students trying to isolate DNA from strawberries. We are teaching them about biology as part of an after-school program we recently started. But we aren’t elementary school teachers; we are Ph.D. biomedical research students at Northwestern University. So how did we end up here?

After four years of refining our teaching and mentoring skills, we wanted to take our involvement to the next level and deepen our knowledge of how to develop a science outreach program. Science in Society program director Michael Kennedy and assistant director Rebecca Daugherty offered us the opportunity to create a Junior Science Club program for 4th-6th grade students at General Wood Boys & Girls Club of Chicago (BGCC) in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago.

In addition to the strawberry DNA experiments, the students at our new club have been chemists creating baking soda-vinegar explosions and engineers designing bridges out of drinking straws. For each lesson, we focus on one key aspect of the scientific method, such as forming a hypothesis, identifying a variable or analyzing data.

So far we have had the privilege to meet and work with more than 40 students at General Wood BGCC. As the weeks go on, we are excited to see students arrive earlier and earlier for the start of Science Club. One very bright 4th-grade student, Emily, whom we met during the summer months, would arrive in the Science Club room the moment we walked through the door so she could help us set up that day’s lesson and ask us questions about being scientists. These unique, personal bonds that we form with individual students make this type of outreach work extremely rewarding, and we are excited to see the program grow and expand to include more students like Emily.

Adopting Northwestern University’s ideals of connecting with our community and extending our training experiences beyond the lab, we originally joined Science in Society’s Science Club program in 2009. Developed in partnership with Northwestern, Chicago Public Schools teachers and the BGCC, the program’s broad mission is to inspire underprivileged Chicago youth to learn scientific skills and pursue science and engineering careers.

As Science Club mentors, the training and professional development we received was broad—covering topics such as science communication, teaching, program development, evaluation and even writing grants. Being in Science Club almost since its inception, we were able to see how the program grew and flourished. And we were proud to share in Science Club’s recent 2013 Afterschool STEM Impact Award.

In addition to the amazing impacts on youth, neither one of us realized how just three hours a week in Science Club would benefit our research. Mentoring elementary and middle school students is a crash course on effective science communication. These skills translate to many aspects of our Ph.D.s, including data presentations in informal and formal settings, working with collaborators and training new lab members. Teaching students critical thinking skills has strengthened our own skills, which translates to the lab bench. Additionally, being a mentor in Science Club has reinvigorated our love of science (something that can get clouded in the day-to-day motions of Ph.D. work). Our Science Club experiences have unquestionably contributed to our success as Ph.D. students.

As we approach our final year as graduate students, we have begun focusing on our futures. Since starting the Junior Science Club program, we have taken on full roles in curriculum design and execution. This has allowed us to learn the philosophy behind developing hypothesis-driven curriculum that can translate to teaching at any level—elementary or college courses. In addition, we had the opportunity to attend the National Institutes of Health SciEd Conference, which highlights other programs funded through Science Education Partnerships Awards (like Science Club). This opened our eyes to a whole world of informal STEM education careers, as well as the opportunity to meet people at the forefront of the field. These opportunities have allowed us to build our teaching portfolios and gain leadership experience in preparation for careers in science education and outreach.

Science Club has shown us that the Ph.D. track at Northwestern can be so much more than just research. Helping the underserved youth of Chicago has been extremely rewarding and has allowed us to show students that the scientific method can be applied in many different situations, not just when they are isolating strawberry DNA.

One thought on “Mentoring Youth by Making Science Fun

  1. So many people forget that the heart of science is that it’s FUN! It’s fulfilling, interesting, exciting, and adventurous to pursue a career in science. I feel that this is often not focused upon when communicating science to young students. Science communication should be fun and engaging, and I commend you on your efforts to make it so.

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