How to Inspire Future Generations of Scientists Without Quitting Our Day Jobs

science outreach elementary

8- to 12-year-olds looking for microorganisms in pond water during a science summer camp run by Students for Science . Photo by Adam Marcus.

Every single person who ultimately decides to pursue a career in science had to develop a passion for the field at some point in their life. Some people choose science later on in their journey through school, while others decide after beginning a career in another field. However, many of us developed our scientific curiosity and inquiry very early in life. Whether it was with an early science experiment (baking soda and vinegar in a paper mache volcano, anyone?) or a reassuring teacher encouraging exploration, each scientist develops a passion for science that guides him or her toward a future research career. Once we decide to embark on a research career, our focus becomes the lab, publications, grants, mentoring, and advancing our field. But now that we’re here, it’s easy to overlook the journey that brought us to this point. With such an intense focus on research and funding in the scientific community, it can be very easy to forget the inspiring moments that drove us toward science. Someone ultimately had to inspire us to pursue our dreams. Although it’s easy to get lost in our field of ever-changing questions and answers, we must inspire future generations of scientists to develop and hone their scientific curiosity. The future of scientific research depends on having future generations of scientists. The only question that remains is how do we do that without quitting our day jobs?

When I first started graduate school, scientific community outreach was foreign to me. Growing up, we never had science camps or visits from professors. Rather, our teachers did their best to teach science from textbooks with few hands-on activities. So when I joined a lab in which my PI makes a point to go out into elementary schools with microscopes, I was dumbfounded to discover the entire concept of scientific community outreach has momentum and is growing quickly. Soon after I discovered this emerging concept, I stumbled across its detractors. These opponents quickly pointed out that, as a graduate student, I should be in lab all the time and focusing solely on my research, no exceptions. I shouldn’t be taking time to work with children or advance science education. Upon hearing those voices, I had the stark realization: if we focus solely on our research, who will be there to inspire future generations to follow in our footsteps? While I understood the value of research and the ultimate goal of a PhD program, I was left with countless questions. First among them, how do PIs juggle their responsibilities with their community outreach efforts? After all, the ultimate goals of a PI are to advance research while providing funding for his/her lab and publishing high quality papers while mentoring junior scientists. So how do people do it? What makes a community outreach program successful, and how can we sustain it in communities all across the country?

As our scientific outreach program, Students for Science, has expanded, I find myself, along with a handful of other scientists, venturing into elementary schools all across the state. Oftentimes, when I arrive at an elementary school and talk to the students about what they learn in science class, I hear the basics: the planets (RIP, Pluto), different states of matter, the definition of a cell, etc. Additionally, these students often confide in me that they don’t conduct science experiments. Be it due to lack of funding, available resources, or time, the students are left without tangible evidence of their newfound scientific knowledge. Thus, when we arrive with both dissecting and compound light microscopes, students exhibit palpable excitement, bounding out of their chairs to examine the equipment. We frequently start by encouraging students to look at everyday objects under the dissecting microscope, while developing hypotheses about what the item will look like up close. Without even realizing it, students are learning and applying the scientific method before opening the door to a whole new world with microscopy. Moving forward to the compound light microscope with classic cheek cell experiments, students frequently shift from the excitement of witnessing objects on a magnified scale to an expression of pure awe. Here they are, directly witnessing the results of their hands-on experiments and seeing exactly what this “cell” that they’ve learned about is. Importantly, teachers and parents frequently reach out to share the excitement imbued in the students, with several asking for birthday presents of microscopes to continue their examination of the microscopic world. By simply spending a few hours with the students and allowing each student to peer through a few microscopes, we’re opening a whole new world to this future generation.

Clearly, these community outreach events have the potential to have a profound impact on children as they begin to explore their interests and develop a path toward their future. Even though I have to take time from my research for these events, I find the excitement and joy of the students infectious, and I return to the lab with renewed energy and excitement for my own research. Although the impact across all the students is unknown, the few students and families that reach out to share stories of inspiration and prolonged excitement provide us with the encouragement to keep moving forward. While we would ideally provide inspiration to every student in the room and have a future generation full of scientists, the ultimate goal is to inspire at least a few to fall in love with science. If we’re able to have an impact on even a single child and encourage that child to pursue a career of scientific exploration and inquiry, we had a successful event.

These outreach activities don’t cost much; anyone can get a compound light microscope or a new Foldscope (a paper-based microscope) and perform microscopic-research activities for a low cost. Elementary schools are THRILLED to have scientists visit and frequently request return visits. Teachers almost universally praise the activities as well, as scientists are able to help students devise experiments and develop the scientific method in ways that may be unavailable otherwise. And importantly, everyone can do it! The ASCB COMPASS Outreach Grants are designed for activities just like this. These grants allow scientists to plan and conduct community outreach events, where they can head to the local school or organize a science fair and work directly with students and the public to spread science awareness. Through all these different activities and available resources, every scientist is primed for community outreach. Inspiring future generations of scientists isn’t an “extracurricular activity” behind our research; this inspiration is critical for future generations of scientific advances and progressing society’s knowledge. And through organizations like Students for Science and funding opportunities like the COMPASS Outreach Grants this inspiration can be achieved, and all without quitting our day job.

About the Author:

Scott Wilkinson is the current co-chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS). He is also a postdoctoral fellow in Adam Sowalsky's lab at the National Cancer Institute studying mechanisms of prostate cancer resistance.

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