Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Building Effective Community Partnerships for Science After School Part I: Including Science Volunteers in Afterschool Programs

This is Kalie, Manager at the Coalition for Science After School. Yesterday, I flew from our offices in Berkeley, CA down to San Diego to participate in a pre-conference session at the Step Up Your Game conference hosted by the California AfterSchool Network. The session was facilitated by Gabrielle Lyon, who serves on the Steering Committee of the Coalition, and sponsored by our friends at Time Warner Cable

We assembled a two panels of speakers to talk about how to build successful partnerships to promote science after school, who spoke about 1) how to recruit and integrate volunteers from the science and business worlds into afterschool STEM programs, and 2) community resources that programs can leverage to include STEM. This blog post summarizes the first part of that conversation.

Many thanks to the California AfterSchool Network and Time Warner Cable for helping us to make this event happen!

First, Dr. Lyon asked the participants about their programs. About half of the participants were already doing some level of STEM in their programs. We also established that "science" and "STEM" were interchangeable in our conversation. We then had a few moments for a free write, prompted by the question "What is worth it for young people in your programs to know and experience when it comes to science?" Some responses of the free write included:
  • Exposure to skill for college and careers (for example, in computer programming)
  • Wanting students to know that STEM is fun
  • Relevance to 21st century career pathways, especially in a rural area
  • Real-life connections to everyday life
Dr. Lyon pointed out that kids are only in school for about 20% of the day, which leaves lots of opportunities for alternate or extended learning of STEM skills. She also asked us to frame the rest of the conversation as how our vision can support the goals outlined during the free write.

After a brief presentation on Project Exploration (including on some of the results of the 10-year retrospective study of their STEM programming), we moved on to the first panel of presenters, who talked to us about including volunteers in their afterschool programs.

First, we heard from Linda Kekelis, Executive Director of Techbridge. Techbridge is an afterschool program for girls that focuses on STEM activities with a strong connection to careers. Linda said that early feedback in the program indicated that the girls saw the activities as fun hobbies, but not necessarily things that could help them in the future. The program's leaders saw the need to invite role models--women with real careers in the STEM fields--to work with the girls. After bringing in role models, program leaders found that even a one-time meeting with a role model can make a huge impact. Not all of the role models intuitively knew how to successfully interact with the girls, and Linda offered these tips for guiding interactions between the girls and the role models:
  • Make the interactions easy for the role models by providing training
  • Start by asking for a one-time commitment to build interest
  • Start by simply asking the role models to talk about what they do--making that personal connection to each girl participant is important
Other insights included to cultivate relationships by sending regular email updates about the program, communicating the value of training, and always expressing thanks.
Next, we heard from Liz Ferguson of BioWaves, one of the organizers of the Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) conference. This large conference brings together hundreds of girls for a day of workshops hosted by real female scientists, most of them affiliated with local universities in the San Diego area. Liz emphasized that it is important to make the conference an authentic science experience to spark interest among the participants. She said they largely recruit their scientist mentors by finding clubs on the different university campuses in San Diego.

We learned more about EYH from Cassondra Williams, who spoke next about recruiting in the science community. Cassondra spoke about both EYH--a large, one-time event--and BeWISE (Better Education for Women In Science and Engineering), a long-term mentoring program for girls. Cassondra identified four places for finding STEM professional volunteers:
  • Universities: the National Science Foundation (NSF) now requires many scientists who receive NSF funding to include public outreach in their research plans; this means that many professors and graduate students in the scientists may be looking for opportunities. 
  • Corporations: research individual companies in your local area; they may have an employee volunteer program and/or an outreach coordinator
  •  Research Institutions: this could include zoos and aquariums, as well as medical centers
  • Government: branches of the military and federal agencies may have volunteering programs; state and county branches may be a resource as well
Cassondra emphasized that programs should have resources available to support volunteers, such as ways to communicate their complicated research. She recommended personal networking (such as getting on listservs), researching specific scientists/STEM professionals to reach out to, and contacting organizations' outreach coordinators as effective ways to find scientists volunteers.

Finally, we heard from Milinda Martin of Time Warner Cable. Milinda is the Vice President, Communications for the Southern California/Mountain West region. Milinda talked about Time Warner Cable's philanthropic initiative Connect a Million Minds, including the Connectory. We also watched a great video of Time Warner Cable employees talking about their volunteer experiences working with kids to promote STEM education. 

Milinda talked about some of the challenges for their volunteers, which could help afterschool programs identify ways to better incorporate and connect with corporate volunteers. First, many employees may not identify as STEM workers--for example, they work in marketing or administration--and might not feel prepared to do science with kids. Second, most employees work during the time that afterschool programs typically operate. Third, afterschool programs may struggle to find the right person at the corporation to contact--look for a volunteer or outreach coordinator. She also emphasized that many employees like to hear feedback from the organizations and programs for which they volunteer.

After the panelists wrapped up their presentations, they participated in a moderated discussion with the audience. Questions ranged from sources of funding to evaluation--some highlights from the conversation included:
  • Building a relationship with volunteers and their home organizations is a key to success on both ends; this requires a good deal of dedication, investment, and time
  • Nonprofit organizations should collect data on their impact with students--for example, giving students pre- and post-participation surveys to identify changing attitudes
  • Students need and want a wide variety of exposures to STEM, and volunteering can help
Thank you again to our speakers, and we hope that this was useful for conference attendees. We'll post Part II of the session--on community resources for STEM--later this week!

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