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AAAS Education Programs Aim to Support Students of All Ages

The Emerging Researchers National Conference, hosted by AAAS and the National Science Foundation in Washington, allows undergraduate and graduate to present their research and network with potential employers. | Colella Digital

From volunteering in elementary school classrooms to helping undergraduate researchers craft resumes, AAAS’ Education and Human Resources department aims to provide opportunities for students at all levels.

Iris Wagstaff, director of EHR's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Program, said she has always worked to improve the lives of people around her and discovered along the way that her science background aids her efforts.

“Science is my vehicle for community outreach,” said Wagstaff.

Wagstaff, a trained research chemist, was presented the K-12 Promotion of Education Award on Oct. 7 at this year’s Women of Color in STEM Conference in Detroit. She first joined AAAS as a Science & Technology Policy Fellow in 2015, looking for hands-on policy experience to bolster her credentials in science and outreach.

“I’m an ambassador for the fellowship program,” Wagstaff said. “It changed my life.”

After developing a diversity and inclusion initiative at the National Institute of Justice — the science agency of the U.S. Department of Justice — she began working full-time with AAAS in March.

Since then, she has continued her outreach efforts, visiting Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md. with other EHR colleagues to share her experience in science. Wagstaff told students that scientists can also be mentors, educators and activists and share interests that extend far beyond the laboratory.

“They were surprised that we’re real people,” said Wagstaff.

She also advised students interested in science to surround themselves with people who will encourage them.

“It might be hard but don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be a scientist, no matter what your background is,” Wagstaff told students.

The EHR department also works to encourage practicing and retired scientists, engineers and other experts in the Washington metropolitan area to share their expertise in local K-12 classrooms by helping students with activities and answering questions about the real-world significance of science lessons.

Shirley Malcom, head of EHR programs, said AAAS began soliciting volunteers by contacting members, before putting the call out to a wider audience. Requests for STEM volunteers to assist teachers in classrooms around Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia were recently published by The Washington Post.

Malcom said that the volunteers enjoy sharing their work with a younger audience. “Everybody wants to be needed,” said Malcom. “These kids and teachers are enthusiastic. It does good for everybody.”

The STEM volunteer program currently operates in the Washington metropolitan area, but Malcom would like to see the concept implemented on a larger scale.

“I wish it was all over the United States,” said Malcom, noting the value of “getting people in classrooms to help kids understand what science is and what scientists and engineers do.”

The EHR department’s engagement with students continues into postsecondary education with initiatives like the Emerging Researchers National Conference. The event is geared toward students who take part in programs funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Human Resources Development, which can include underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities. 

Co-hosted by AAAS and NSF, the conference provides a venue for those studying STEM-related fields at the undergraduate or graduate levels to share their research. Interested students submit abstracts illustrating their research to AAAS, which are then reviewed based on originality, scientific merit and writing quality.

The next ERN Conference will be held in Washington from Feb. 22-24, 2018.

The partnership began when NSF approved a grant proposal AAAS submitted. NSF Program Director Claudia Rankins said the agency’s support for the project helps to give voice to young scientists who come from underrepresented communities in STEM fields.

“We are funding this event to ensure that students, particularly those who have never had the opportunity, can come to a national gathering and present their research,” said Rankins.

In the past, the conference has presented workshops on a variety of topics, from lessons in science storytelling to informational sessions about internships, jobs and fellowships.

“The conference allows them to gain professional development skills they’ll need to join the STEM workforce,” said Wagstaff, who is managing the event.

While participants have the chance to network with potential employers, Rankins said the event also encourages students to connect with one another.

“When you’re a student in STEM, you’re often isolated,” said Rankins. “It helps to know that there are others like you.”

Malcom explained that building these types of communities through active engagement has always been part of the EHR mission.

“We can’t always expect people to come to us,” Malcom said. “We have to go to the people.”

[Associated image: Colella Digital]