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How to Grow Future Science Leaders

The STPF professional development program


Fellows role-play in a federal appropriations exercise at the 2018 STPF Orientation. | Isabella Lucy/AAAS

Increasingly, scientists and engineers are finding their way to the forefront of public discussion about issues and policies that affect citizens. At the same time, scientific evidence is not always heard, or received well, in public fora or the policymaking apparatus.

To get fellows up to speed on communication and negotiation skills and other critical competencies, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program provides a yearlong series of workshops and events for professional development (PD) that goes hand in hand with the experiential learning that happens on the ground in fellowship assignments.

The PD program is designed to equip fellows to become science leaders who can demonstrate the importance of science to policymakers and the public and ensure that scientific evidence is integrated into decision-making. Fellows take what they learn in the PD program and implement those skills in their fellowship and future professional settings.

Comprised of a multi-day orientation at the beginning of the fellowship year (read about last year’s orientation), monthly workshop series, special interest affinity group programming, and a year-end summit, the curriculum is based on an annual assessment of fellow educational needs, reviews of workshops by current fellows, and input from STPF staff and alumni fellows.

In operation for many decades, the STPF PD program updated the learning goals and objectives last year. The PD program is designed to integrate science and technology expertise with communication and leadership skills for greater impact in the federal policymaking arena, and to build a network of diverse stakeholders who are committed to utilizing science to inform policy. These goals are addressed through an annual program of more than 100 hours of workshops, networking events, and presentations built around four learning objectives. The first – policy in the federal government – examines the relationships between and within the three branches of government. The second learning objective equips fellows with communication skills to facilitate collaboration with stakeholders ranging from policymakers to the public. The third learning objective imparts lessons in leadership. The last learning objective provides hands-on networking skills and career strategies.

“As a life-long educator and science advocate, I love to see the proverbial lightbulb go off when fellows and colleagues learn new things or when true engagement is taking place,” said Melissa Morris, director of professional development.

Morris analyzes qualitative and quantitative data over the course of the year to determine what works and identify overlap or gaps in the curriculum. “Our fellows can be tough critics. After a workshop last year, I asked one of the more outspoken fellows what he thought, and he said, ‘That was pretty good, no complaints.’ I responded with, ‘Well, I guess my work here is done.’ We both laughed. When workshops can win over even the toughest critics that is another indicator of success!”

The PD program continually evolves to meet and anticipate fellows’ needs. For example, STPF is exploring the possibility of allowing fellows to use their travel and training funds for career coaching.

Of course, said Morris, “One of the best things fellows get out of PD is the chance to network and see their fellow fellows!”