The real-world expertise of scientists and engineers volunteering in elementary, middle and high school classrooms is more important than ever — a role that the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program is filling as it celebrates its 15th anniversary.
Veteran volunteers, prospective volunteers, teachers, school administrators and instructional specialists convened April 23 at AAAS’ headquarters to celebrate the program’s anniversary and to look ahead at how volunteers can play a pivotal role supporting the increasing number of students who are learning by solving practical problems.
The AAAS STEM Volunteer Program dates to a 2004 editorial in Science by then-AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner that touched upon the state of science literacy in the United States. “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,” wrote Leshner. AAAS member and retired NASA scientist Donald Rea took Leshner’s words as a call to action, joining several other retired scientists and engineers in visiting local Montgomery County, Maryland elementary schools.
Rea now heads a program that sends nearly 200 volunteers each year into nine school districts in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Originally known as the Senior Scientists and Engineers, the program was renamed in 2016 to reflect its membership, which has grown more diverse in age, background and professional experience – today, more than 20% of volunteers are still in the workforce. Their ranks continue to grow, said Betty Calinger, senior project director at AAAS. The meeting drew a number of AAAS members interested in volunteering who were matched with seasoned volunteers to learn more about participating in the program.
Volunteers play many different roles throughout the year, depending on the age of the students – volunteers are placed in classrooms ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade – and the needs of the teacher with whom they are paired. A volunteer might set up science experiments, assist students as they work individually or in groups and respond to the oft-asked question from students, “Why do we need to know this?”
Offering students insight into the real-world relevance of their STEM studies is particularly important, given the rise in project-based learning, according to Jeff Lonnett, instructional specialist with Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools.
Project-based learning, sometimes known as problem-based learning, is intended to instill in students not just requisite course content but also real-world skills students will need to succeed as adults in the workforce, like communication and critical thinking, said Lonnett.
In a traditional classroom, teachers might have time to assign a project after teaching and testing. Problem-based learning instead centers on projects. Much like the work of scientists and engineers, this approach starts with students identifying a problem. As students set about finding solutions, they are improving their understanding of the curriculum’s content and cultivating necessary skills, said Lonnett, who develops training courses for Fairfax County teachers to help them use problem-based learning in their own classrooms.
In addressing the volunteers, Lonnett emphasized the important role they play in augmenting project-based learning. “I encourage you as you’re working with teachers to talk to them about making their projects more authentic and how you can support them along the way through that process,” Lonnett said. Teachers are well-aware of what students need to learn at each level, Lonnett added, “but you know how it fits in the real world of science.”
Lonnett offered several examples of how Fairfax County is leveraging the approach in classrooms supported by STEM Volunteers. Students in one elementary school classroom, for instance, designed obstacle courses inspired by the TV show “American Ninja Warriors” to learn about shapes and physics. The STEM volunteer, an engineer, supplemented the exercise by explaining how the skills used by the students could be applied to other disciplines. Another class started with a problem inspired by a local news story about unused Metro cars. With the help of a volunteer, an architect, the students brainstormed how the cars might be used to house homeless people, a project that taught them how to apply the concepts of area and perimeter in a creative way, Lonnett said.
This year, all STEM Volunteers in Fairfax County elementary schools are matched with teachers using project-based learning in their classrooms, said Rea.
“If you have a STEM background, you work with projects,” Rea said to current and prospective volunteers. “You have the background – the ideal background, in fact – for working with teachers.”