Edited by Simon Bakke
Imagine getting to have personal conversations with a real scientist when you were in middle school. You could ask them as many questions as you could write and learn about what being a scientist is actually like. How would that change your idea of what opportunities were open to you? How would it shape your career path?
Learning that goes both ways
Letters to a Pre-Scientist is a program whose goal is to make these connections a reality. Their mission is to “demystify science careers by creating personal connections between students from high-poverty schools and real scientists”. To do this, they pair scientists and students as pen pals, and over the course of a school year, grade 6-8 students exchange letters with a scientist that specializes in a subject area they find interesting. Middle school students get a chance to hone their reading and writing skills and get exposure to STEM career paths. And scientists get to practice science communication to younger audiences in a one-on-one setting.
Last year, I was lucky enough to be one of those scientists talking with a middle school student. We were matched as pen pals and exchanged letters throughout the year. In our letters we talked about the student’s interests, career aspirations, and my own work as a scientist. Believe me, she asked a lot of great questions. Some of our correspondence also included photos, drawings and STEM activities for her to explore science further.
There are three key beliefs and strategies of the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program that encourage successful experiences:
- The program aims to break down barriers to higher education and STEM fields among high-poverty and underrepresented students who are less likely to pursue higher education.
- Every student can be a future scientist by exposing them to career paths and STEM fields they might not otherwise know about or see as a possibility for themselves.
- They employ a no-opt-out approach whereby every student in the classroom participates in the program, no matter their interest level or reading and writing skills.
In the 2018-2019 school year, Letters to a Pre-Scientist is serving over 850 students working with 12 teachers in 6 different states. Scientists participating in the program come from all over the world, including 48 states and 28 countries, and hail from a range of backgrounds — graduate students, post-doctorals, industry professionals, engineers, and more.
Scientists interested in becoming pen pals and teachers interested in hosting Letters to a Pre-Scientist in their classroom need to begin the process in the summer prior to the start of that school year.
However, joining their mailing list will keep you up to date on other outreach opportunities and ensure you don’t miss the window to sign up for next year’s program. With the help of participating scientists and teachers, we can demystify STEM careers to younger students and encourage all students’ futures in science.
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