AAAS National STEM Volunteer Program Puts Scientists in K-12 Classrooms

An ambitious new AAAS program will put science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals into K-12 classrooms, to help educators prepare their students to meet new science standards.

A pilot of the AAAS National STEM Volunteer Program has awarded seven grants of approximately $12,000 each to nonprofit organizations partnering with AAAS members to develop and implement programs that will connect STEM professionals with K-12 educators.

The pilot program was made possible by a generous gift from a AAAS Fellow and lifetime member. Additional support was provided by AAAS Board treasurer David Evans Shaw as well as contributions to the AAAS Flexible Action Fund, a source of flexible funding that allows AAAS to respond to opportunities and challenges as they arise.

The AAAS National STEM Volunteer Program pilot grant winners are:

  • University of New England Center for Excellence in Neuroscience and Marine Science with AAAS members David Manyan, Barry Costa-Pierce, Steve Zeeman and Edward Bilsky;
  • Salk Institute for Biological Studies New Frontiers in Science Education Program with AAAS member Ronald Evans;
  • University of Georgia REFOCUS Program with AAAS member Julie Luft;
  • University of Colorado - Denver Young Hands in Science Program with AAAS member Barry Shur;
  • University of Washington Institute of Science and Math Education with AAAS member Philip Bell;
  • University of Wisconsin Young Science Scholars program with AAAS member Audrey Gasch; and
  • Rochester Institute of Technology Insight Lab for Science Outreach and Learning Research with AAAS member Stefi Baum.

Most of the grantees will use the funding to expand or repurpose existing outreach programs. The REFOCUS program at the University of Georgia will expand on Project FOCUS, a program that connected more than 1,000 graduate and undergraduate students with nearly 25,000 grade school children. Similarly, the Salk Institute program will expand their ongoing outreach with San Diego County schools by partnering high school teachers and scientists to help them develop curricula based on the Institute's research.

However, a grant to the University of Washington Institute of Science and Math Education will support a new program that will partner graduate and undergraduate students with teachers and students from grades 6-12 in Kent, Washington. Project leaders will strive to recruit and match students and volunteers from communities that have been historically underrepresented in STEM disciplines. Similarly, the Insight Lab for Science Outreach at the Rochester Institute of Technology will build upon an existing relationship with the Rush-Henrietta School District to create STEM Excellence teams that will include deaf and hard-of-hearing students, faculty and volunteers.

Some grantees incorporated community members who haven't been formally involved in science education. The Young Science Scholars program at the University of Wisconsin will include area afterschool providers, ensuring that science learning doesn't stop at the end of the school day.  The University of New England program will seek volunteers from community foundations and local technology companies in addition to university faculty, staff and students. Post-doctoral students will be the volunteers in the program at the University of Colorado - Denver.

The program is starting at a critical time for K-12 science education. New science teaching standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards, value understanding the practice of science over rote memorization of facts and figures. However, most science teachers have never worked as scientists, and collaborating science professionals can share insights into the science practices that are a major component of the new standards.

A 2010 report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) said that all middle schools and high schools should have partners in STEM fields who "can bring STEM subjects to life for students and help teachers and students learn about STEM in the workplace."

"High schools and most of the nation's middle schools typically have teachers with some STEM expertise but these teachers often lack meaningful connections to the STEM professional community," the report said. Through the National STEM Volunteer Program, teachers will build connections with STEM professionals from a wide range of disciplines and career stages.

"Our diverse membership puts AAAS in a unique position to connect STEM professionals with middle and high school students," said Alan Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the journal Science. "The National STEM Volunteer Program will also help us build a network of volunteers who can help students understand the practice of STEM in formal and informal settings."

The new program draws inspiration from AAAS' Senior Scientists and Engineers program, which has trained more than 150 retired scientists, engineers and physicians in Montgomery County, Md., Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia, and the District of Columbia to volunteer in local K-12 classrooms since its inception in 2005.

Volunteers for the National STEM Volunteer Program may include retired and current STEM professionals as well as STEM graduate students and postdocs. Potential partners include school districts, universities, federally funded research and development centers, science museums, federal labs and STEM professional organizations.

Grants from the National STEM Volunteer Program will cover expenses including recruiting and training volunteers, outreach to schools and individual teachers, promotional materials, volunteer recognition and administrative support. Proposals for grants must come from AAAS members in partnership with a community nonprofit organization to support a volunteer program that connects STEM professionals with K-12 teachers in classrooms.

In addition to the financial support, AAAS will offer grantees online resources for developing, implementing and sustaining volunteer efforts. In-person support for grant winners will include an orientation, site visits and phone calls during the development, implementation and evaluation of their volunteer programs. The STEM Volunteer Program and other AAAS efforts to improve K-12 science and math education can be supported through gifts to the  Education and Human Resources Flexible Action Fund.