Program for Graduate Students Spurs Communication Skills and Expands Career Opportunities

Katie Skalak, a GK-12 Fellow and geological sciences graduate student, collects samples from a river bank
[Photograph © Katie Skalak]

Twice a week for a year University of Delaware geological sciences graduate student Katie Skalak would step away from the river and out of her waders, climb into her car with a coffee in hand, and drive to the Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington. Paired with a science teacher, Skalak used the finding from her own research to teach science to ninth-graders at the vocational school, which trained students in trades such as hairdressing, carpentry, and machinery. Skalak learned to explain science in "digestible bits," create lesson plans and teach in a learner-focused style. Along the way, she improved her ability to communicate science to a non-scientist audience, a skill that graduate programs focusing on research rarely cultivate but yet sorely need.

Skalak gained these experiences and skills through the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education Program, funded by the National Science Foundation. In late March, the program had its tenth annual conference, attracting a record 728 participants to Washington, D.C. AAAS collaborates with NSF in the organization of the conference as well as other conferences involving the GK-12 community.

"We're creating a new science professional, who sees research as a complement to teaching," said Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity. ""They become skilled at bringing research principles into the classroom."

The GK-12 program helps graduate students become citizen scientists capable of communicating science to different audiences, including students, policymakers or researchers in other disciplines. "These individuals have developed much better communication skills because they better understand the diversity of audiences," Chubin said.

"There's a human side to conducting science," said Skalak, listing examples such as mentoring, effective teaching of undergraduate students, and creating and maintaining functional working groups. Skalak said that those skills typically come later in a scientist's professional life. "It's trial by fire for many people," she said. "I feel extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to think about these things and to have been given the skills."

Program officers at the National Science Foundation (NSF) echoed that sentiment. The program creates a new kind of science professional in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, "one who is not only prepared to conduct leading-edge research but one who has other skills to function well in a global economy," said Sonia Ortega, the senior GK-12 program officer at NSF. "We are preparing professionals who will be engaged in their communities, who will know about the scholarship of teaching and learning, and who will be able to bring science and engineering issues to the public."

Ping Ge, another NSF GK-12 program officer and a mechanical engineer by training, emphasized that graduate training should nurture an understanding of how social and global contexts contribute to research. "The GK-12 program provides a pathway to bring STEM professionals into the classroom, and makes science and engineering relevant to the society," she said. "Knowing the scientific world gives one a good foundation, but more is needed to be really competitive in a global market."

University of Colorado graduate engineering TEAMS Fellow Michael Bendewald helps a fifth grade student from Lafayette Elementary School measure the energy output of her wind turbine.
Photo © University of Colorado at Boulder, Integrated Teaching and Learning Program

The GK-12 program can expand scientists' career options, too. Before the program, GK-12 participants tend to think that they want to become university professors. After the program, they also consider non-academic career paths in diplomacy, government, industry, the law, or other fields.

More than 5000 graduate students, about 10,000 teachers and about 700,000 kids have been involved in the GK-12 program since it began 10 years ago. University faculty members submit proposals to the NSF GK-12 program to create and run the projects, which provide graduate students with $30,000 yearly stipends and pairs them with K-12 science teachers. The GK-12 Fellows—as the participating graduate students are known—apply for the program through the 146 universities that run the GK-12 projects. In addition to their work in K-12 classrooms, the Fellows participate in courses, seminars, and workshops to build their understanding of how people learn and how to communicate science.

It all begins with communication between university faculty and local schools. Doug Levey, a principal investigator on a GK-12 project and an ornithologist at the University of Florida, started talking to school administrators and teachers before he began writing the GK-12 grant. "What I found is that there was a sense of caution in the public school officials I talked to," said Levey, who has had an active GK-12 program for five years. He noticed a general lack of partnerships between schools and scientists and engineers at nearby universities.

From talking to the school officials, Levey learned that they liked the idea of a scientist or engineer in the classroom as a mentor and role model rather than as a teacher. He incorporated that thinking into his GK-12 proposal. In the project that he runs with middle-school science teacher Suzan Smith, the GK-12 Fellows wear bright blue shirts labeled "I am a Scientist" or "I am an Engineer" when they are in the classrooms.

"The students see those shirts and they get excited. The students come to see the Fellows as role models. They can't help it—we're not subtle at all about it," Levey said. "Not coincidentally, the Fellows come to see themselves as role models, and they embrace that new identity," he added.

Skalak—the coffee-toting geological sciences graduate student—agreed that many of her students saw her as a role model. She exchanged special handshakes with them, doled out college prep and career advice, and showed them photos about her work. She didn't fit their stereotypes: Gone was the expected shock of white hair, the boxy lab coat, and the assortment of beakers and pipettes. In its place was a young woman clad in muddy field clothes, standing in a river while scribbling observations in her notebook about deposits of mercury-contaminated sediment left in riverbanks after flooding.

"I think my accessibility was overall what made them change their perception of a scientist," said Skalak, who's now finishing her dissertation. "I told them once in a presentation that I struggled with math and science when I was at their point in education and that a couple of good teachers changed my perspective."

Since completing the program last year, Skalak has developed GK-12-like activities at the University of Delaware as a way to foster communication abilities in graduate students. She created an informal research group that meets twice a month to give 10-minute research presentations to fellow graduate students across disciplines. And she tailored the campus' generic graduate teaching assistant workshop to make it more helpful for incoming graduate students teaching earth sciences.

Such efforts to sustain the GK-12 programs after the five-year NSF grants end are of critical interest to NSF officials such as Mimi McClure, an assistant program officer with the GK-12 program. "My dream is to make Al Gore obsolete," she quipped recently while visiting AAAS headquarters. "He told a story that scientists couldn't tell, and he got a Nobel Prize for it."