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Connecting with the Community Through the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program

Social responsibility might not be taught in many lab lesson plans, but that’s not stopping young scientists from leaving the bench for the benefit of their communities. For AAAS Members John-Hanson Machado and Ryan Haupt, giving back starts in DC-area classrooms.

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Ryan Haupt. Credit: Ryan Haupt.

“I felt a strong desire to participate in making my own neighborhood a better place. I wanted to connect with the community here and I was especially interested in being able to do that using my knowledge as a STEM professional,” Haupt said.

Haupt, currently a Research Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wyoming, primarily studies sloths. He has felt that it is important to inform not only his fellow academics about his interesting research, but also members of the public; he feels as though it is his responsibility to do so. He has worked with conservation groups in Latin America, where sloths call home, translating his work into Spanish so that people living alongside these animals can better understand his research. Eventually, he realized that he ought to be putting that same mindset into his own neighborhood. “There are people who can benefit from my scientific knowledge and training, and the best way to apply that seemed to be by volunteering,” he said. 

Other young scientists like Haupt are also interested in helping to expand science outreach to their communities. Biophysical chemist, John-Hanson Machado, also thinks that giving his time to others around his community is important. He does so because, being a first-generation college student, he needed to rely on other people over the years, including his family and mentors, who have inspired him to give back. “A lot of people have invested in me, and I feel the need to invest in other people,” he said.

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John-Hanson Machado. Credit: Alexandra Kirby.

Both Machado and Haupt participate in AAAS’ STEM Volunteer Program, which was initiated in 2004 to encourage STEM education to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Machado chose to participate in the program because he believes in its mission, which focuses on “the more human element part of science, which scientists don’t usually do,” he said. Over 200 volunteers, including Machado and Haupt, in the program – focused in the D.C. area – spend their time in classrooms helping students learn about STEM fields. Machado and Haupt see their work as volunteers in D.C.-area classrooms as part of their social responsibility to their communities.

Haupt volunteers at the Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C. where he helps biology teacher Keyana Simmons. Similar to Haupt, Machado also volunteers at a D.C. public school, the School Without Walls High School. This school is located on the George Washington University Foggy Bottom Campus where Machado himself studies. With experience in chemistry and biology, Machado volunteers in the School Without Walls’ AP Biology class. “I act as an extra set of hands,” he explained. If the students have a question or need help with a certain topic, Machado will step in to support AP Biology teacher, Fatos Kopliku.

Developing a positive relationship with Kopliku was crucial, Machado said, and he did that by showing up consistently, which is especially important in the first few months of volunteering. Doing so led to Kopliku allowing Machado to teach the AP Biology class about nerve agents, a topic Machado was enthusiastic about. “Teachers want you to teach what you are excited about,” he said. Machado had a Review article published in the ACS Chemical Neuroscience in 2018 about nerve agents. With Kopliku’s approval, Machado decided to use his experience and passion about nerve agents to teach the high schoolers about biological systems. He used the Review article as a case study to teach about various concepts in biology, such as synapses, the nervous system and the negative feedback loop. “Learning the science from a story perspective…I think gave the students a more complete picture of why they need to learn all that information.”

The way that Machado related biological topics to real world experiences – as seen in his nerve agents exercise – helped him build positive relationships with students, which he says is also a vital part of volunteering at a school. He finds that the AP Biology class is “very receptive.” The students help Machado out too; “The kids keep me accountable with volunteering,” he said. Being a regular face is important for the students to “build rapport.” Machado finds that the kids will end up being “interested by you because they are emotionally invested in you.”

Haupt agrees with that sentiment and knows that building relationships with students, while important, takes time. “Things were slow at first, the students didn’t know me so were naturally a bit wary, but they’ve opened up and come to see that I can help them,” he said. “On any given day I might help by working with a small group of students, or just bouncing around to whoever needs help, or even giving a short lecture on the topic of the day if it’s something I know enough about. It’s been a great refresher for some stuff that I haven’t really thought about since college myself.”

According to Haupt, the man who his high school is named after had something to say that relates to volunteering. “The best prize life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing,” Theodore Roosevelt once said. And while he may not have been referring directly to volunteering, it is still applicable, Haupt believes. “My mantra lately has been the idea that we’re all in this together…The spirit of volunteering is showing up and being selfless with your time, energy and expertise,” he said. “Choosing to give [my time] away occasionally demonstrates a degree of caring that I’d have a hard time expressing in any other way.”

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Alexandra Kirby