The AAAS Senior Scientists & Engineers STEM Volunteer Program, which placed 165 role models in eight Metro-D.C. school districts in 2014-15, recently celebrated 10 years of support for K-12 science-literacy.
The program, spearheaded by retired Jet Propulsion Laboratory chemist Donald Rea, currently sends trained volunteers into D.C.-area classrooms, where they provide support for teachers and try to spark students' interest in science and technology.
In opening an anniversary celebration on 5 May, AAAS CEO Rush Holt said that volunteers can help to make science more accessible to all students, by showing them that scientists are people, too. He added that demystifying science can go a long way toward promoting public trust in the scientific enterprise-which is important as some people continue to question the reality of climate change, or the safety of vaccines, for example.
The job of volunteers "is not to take over the classroom, but rather, to be a full partner with the teacher … It is about building relationships."
Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources
Shirley | Malcom
"Scientists have spent decades telling students that we're not like them, or they're not like us," said Holt, executive publisher of the Science family of journals. "Yes, science is special, but we are not the sole custodians of facts, cut and dried, and if we continue to suggest that scientists are more special than others, it's no wonder that students might say, `I don't trust that.'"
When students become comfortable with basic aspects of the scientific process, such as hypothetical and statistical reasoning, Holt said: "They can think like a scientist-even if they don't want to be a scientist."
Recent national education reports have encouraged the use of science mentors in K-12 classrooms, noted Betty Calinger, AAAS project director. In a report on how best to prepare students for science careers, for instance, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology wrote that "all middle and high schools should have a partner in a STEM field to help students understand how many discoveries remain to be made and the role young people can play in solving important scientific problems." At the same time, she said, new science-learning standards have focused on ensuring that students understand how science in practiced, rather than the rote memorization of facts and figures.
The AAAS volunteer initiative has two primary goals: fostering literacy in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM); and motivating students to pursue STEM careers, current program coordinator Donald Rea explained. Volunteers must agree to serve for a full school-year. Most volunteers spend between one and three days per week in the classroom.
All volunteers are screened and must undergo training before they can enter classrooms, said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. Their job "is not to take over the classroom, but rather, to be a full partner with the teacher," Malcom emphasized. "It is about building relationships."
At the anniversary event, Jay Dailer, a teacher at Irving Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia, commended the work of volunteer Sal Bosco. "It has been the single best thing that has ever happened in my teaching career," Dailer told Senior Scientists & Engineers in the AAAS auditorium. "Sal is the icing on the cake … I do a much better job because of AAAS and this program … you guys have so much to give. Pay it forward."
Bosco, a retired physical chemist who taught at the Air Force Academy for many years, said that he tries to "give students a feeling for how science connects to their lives," but he never allows himself to forget that Dailer is in charge of the classroom.
Another volunteer, Alan M. Rubin, a mechanical engineer who retired from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been working with the Senior Scientists & Engineers since 2008. "My goal is to give students some real-world experience based on my 30 years of experience," he said. "It's a win-win-win: A win for students, a win for teachers, and a win for volunteers."
Last year, the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program expanded nationally, by awarding grants to seven institutions that now pair AAAS members with K-12 educators from Georgia to California. The expansion was made possible by a generous gift from a AAAS Fellow and lifetime member, additional support from AAAS Treasurer David Evans Shaw, and contributions to the association's Flexible Action Fund.