Skip to main content

Interactive Early Education Builds STEM Literacy in Children

AAAS Programs Introduce STEM Careers Through Hands-On Activities and Interaction With Scientists

The AAAS STEM Volunteer Program is an organization of STEM professionals who volunteer in classrooms in nine school districts in the Washington, D.C., area. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Wildlife biologists have turned to creative solutions like 3D printing technologies to fashion prosthetic beaks, limbs and shells to aid injured animals. A group of Maryland elementary school students were given their own opportunity to tackle a similar project, designing and printing shells for turtles, hermit crabs or snails under the guidance of a retired scientist.

Throughout the process, systems biologist Gertraud Robinson encouraged the students to think like a scientist. “You have a problem; you think about the solution; you test it out; and you improve,” she coached.

Robinson has leaned in to science education after retiring from the National Institutes of Health, trading her laboratory for elementary school classrooms and forgoing a full retirement. She participates in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s STEM Volunteer Program, which pairs scientists and engineers with elementary, middle and high school teachers at nine school districts in the Washington, D.C., area, including those in three Virginia counties and three cities, and two in Maryland. In support of primary and secondary education, the volunteers work to spark interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) with an eye toward drawing students into relevant careers.

Nearly 200 volunteers visit classrooms throughout the school year, helping teachers set up experiments, answering student questions, and drawing connections between classroom projects and the real-life research and activities scientists pursue.

The program is one of several AAAS initiatives that foster science literacy in children and cultivate interest in STEM careers. Along with Science in the Summer, a seasonal enrichment program, and Family Science Days, a public event held at the AAAS Annual Meeting, the STEM Volunteer Program complements an array of AAAS education and public engagement activities that take a hands-on approach.

“In the face of AAAS’s goal to foster education in science and technology for all, we have worked to improve K–12 STEM education at a system level and have coupled this work with direct engagement with students,” said Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and head of the SEA Change program, a AAAS initiative to spur institutional change at colleges and universities to support diversity and inclusion. “Through these programs, the value of STEM education has been reinforced for students and parents alike, and we are encouraged by engagement activities through the positive changes we realize.”

The STEM Volunteer Program dates to 2004, when Alan I. Leshner, then AAAS CEO and now AAAS’s interim CEO, penned a relevant editorial for Science. “Reaching out to the public is not a strong tradition for the science community, perhaps because we may think that nonscientists cannot understand our work. We’re wrong about that,” Leshner wrote.

The editorial inspired Donald Rea, a retired NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist, who joined other AAAS members in volunteering as science educators at public schools in Maryland’s Montgomery County, the state’s largest school district. Together, they launched what was then called the AAAS Senior Scientists and Engineers program.

A girl holds a test tube with red liquid
Participants extracted DNA from strawberries among the many hands-on activities offered at the 2019 Family Science Days in Washington, D.C. | Adam Cohen/AAAS

In 2016, the program became the STEM Volunteer Program to reflect a broader volunteer base that expanded beyond senior citizens. Today, about 20% of participants in the program take time away from their STEM jobs to volunteer in classrooms, according to Betty Calinger, senior project director at AAAS.

AAAS activities for children do not end with the school year. Science in the Summer is a free, hands-on program geared toward 2nd through 6th grade students. Launched in the Philadelphia area in the 1980s by pharmaceutical company GSK, Science in the Summer expanded nationwide with the help of AAAS in 2015. AAAS now oversees Science in the Summer at dozens of sites in Washington, D.C.; Maryland; and Virginia, bringing local teachers to libraries, museums, and Boys & Girls Clubs to lead students in hands-on science experiments.

The goal of this program is to keep children from losing skills and knowledge during summer breaks, Calinger said, and instill perspectives that extend beyond the next school year. Children get excited about science and build science literacy for the long term, she said.

Each summer’s curriculum is centered on a theme to demonstrate the relevance of science in their everyday lives and interests. A sports-focused curriculum, for instance, taught children how their favorite athletes benefit from quick reflexes. They also were given an opportunity to be scientists in testing their own hand-eye coordination. First, though, they had to establish a hypothesis and collect data before they could draw conclusions.

Last summer, educator Monica Padgett led Science in the Summer participants in experiments related to space travel. To learn about rocket propulsion, Padgett guided students as they used film canisters to create their own miniature rocket ships. When the fuel — a mixture of water and Alka-Seltzer — was added, the rockets zoomed toward the ceiling, just one part of a curriculum that is “hands-on and exciting for the kids,” said Padgett.

Experiencing fun science firsthand is a hallmark of AAAS’s Family Science Days, the AAAS Annual Meeting’s well-attended public event. Since 2004, the event has offered children and their parents opportunities to hold a real human brain, pilot a robot and build their own pinball game at activity stations run by museums, universities, laboratories, and other science organizations.

Older children are particularly interested in exhibits about virtual reality, 3D printing and computer programming, while younger children crowd around areas that feature anything they can touch, said Stacey Baker, public engagement associate with AAAS’s Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

Stage shows featured at Family Science Days also are interactive. Scientists give a short presentation and answer questions from the audience before heading to the “Meet a Scientist” area, where children can ask scientists questions in a one-on-one setting. Children engage in conversations with a diverse slate of scientists across genders, races, and ethnicities and from a variety of STEM careers. Children realize that “they, too, can be scientists,” said Baker.

From the start of her transition from NIH to the classroom, Robinson recognized an inspiration along with the importance of bringing science to elementary schools. As a STEM Volunteer, she wanted to represent science diversity. The participation of female scientists in the program sends many students a powerful message by their presence as a volunteer. “That was one of my motivations—to show them that there are women working in this job,” she said.

The goal was validated when students, as part of a class project, were asked to draw a scientist. The majority of the drawings depicted women. Robinson said, “I was pleased.”


A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the August 30, 2019, issue of Science.

[Associated image: Adam Cohen/AAAS]



Andrea Korte

Related Focus Areas