Ask a group of scientists how they chose their careers and many will tell you about a parent, teacher or another adult figure, who exposed them to science when they were young. Whether taking them hiking to collect bugs, building volcanoes with baking soda and vinegar or staying up late to see the stars, mentors play a vital role in motivating young people to become scientists. This is even truer for girls and minority students. Having access to adults who encourage their scientific interests can make a significant impact in the decisions young people make to take the classes they need for careers in science.
To provide more opportunities for young people to engage in science, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) and Institute for Chemical Education (ICE) have partnered on a wide range of science outreach programs.
The effort was recently bolstered by a new three-year partnership with Sigma-Aldrich, a global life sciences and technology company based out of St. Louis, Missouri, with facilities in Madison and Milwaukee. It has committed $10,000 to help support the outreach programs for the first year, with plans to discuss increased funding in the future.
“It looks like this is going to be an excellent partnership,” said Andrew Greenberg, co-leader of the education and outreach group for UW-Madison’s NSEC project. “One of the unique things about this corporate partnership is that Sigma-Aldrich also wants to participate and volunteer in the outreach programs.”
As part of the new partnership, Sigma-Aldrich employees are participating in SCIENCountErs, an outreach program with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County coordinated by ICE outreach specialists Francisca Jofre and Sara Kobilka. The program’s volunteers work with students in third through eighth grade.
“They do fun, interactive science activities that are inquiry-based,” said Kobilka. “The volunteers build relationships with the kids and encourage them to consider becoming scientists when they grow up and that essentially they are already scientists because they’re asking questions, doing experiments and coming up with creative solutions.”
ICE has organized training sessions with Sigma-Aldrich employees to equip them to work with the students. Many of the employees who applied to participate in the program are UW-Madison alums who were involved in outreach activities while attending the university.
David Krawczyk, a Sigma-Aldrich chemist and UW-Madison alumnus, says he signed up to volunteer because, “I wanted to give back to the community and to inspire kids to enjoy science.”
The partnership with Sigma-Aldrich and ICE creates a unique opportunity for young students to meet scientists within their community. Other volunteers for SCIENCountErs include undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with science backgrounds.
“It’s nice for the kids to see people who are older, who have kids, and have outside lives,” Kobilka said. “Some little girls think ‘If I’m a scientist, I can’t be a mom, because moms aren’t scientists.’ Just being able to change that perception is really great.”
“We believe that giving children the opportunity to engage with science early is more than half the battle,” said Jeffrey Whitford, Global Citizenship Manager at Sigma-Aldrich. “As school districts across the country struggle with funding, we’re working to provide more students with opportunities like SCIENCountErs and to provide strong role models who inspire the scientists of tomorrow.”
SCIENCounters programs also operate in Eau Claire, Wis. through a partnership between UW-Eau Claire and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Eau Claire, as well as in five other cities across the U.S.
According to a 2009 Research!America poll, 83 percent of Americans can’t name a living scientist. Thanks to the ICE partnership with Sigma-Aldrich, 100 percent of Madison SCIENCountErs students will personally know multiple scientists and hopefully some students will follow in their science mentor’s footsteps.
— Grace Pham, firstname.lastname@example.org