Volunteers Bring Real-World STEM Experience to Classrooms

Since 2004, the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program has expanded into 10 school districts in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. | Jeremy Wilburn/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

AAAS has been instrumental in bringing scientists and engineers into hundreds of elementary, middle and high school classrooms as part of the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program, with the aim of supporting education and literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and encouraging students to pursue careers in STEM. 

Volunteers wear a number of hats, depending on the needs of their school or teacher: assisting teachers with lesson and activity planning, creating and setting up experiments, helping students with individual or group work, sharing stories from their careers and answering students’ questions about science, to name a few. Volunteers assist science specialist teachers who work with the entire school and build a long-term collaboration with one teacher, getting to know students week after week.

“It’s amazing how different each volunteer’s experience is. There’s almost no two that have the same experience,” said David Walden, who retired after 35 years in the Navy working on hydrodynamics and supporting ship design. He is now in his sixth year of volunteering at Nottingham Elementary in Arlington, Virginia, assisting three fifth-grade classes with science every Friday.

The AAAS STEM Volunteer Program has come a long way from its beginnings in 2004, according to program head Donald Rea, a trained chemist, now retired from NASA. Inspired by an op-ed in Science by then-AAAS CEO Alan Leshner lamenting the level of science literacy in the United States, Rea and several other retired scientists and engineers who met regularly at AAAS decided to address science literacy in their communities by visiting local elementary schools, starting with just eight volunteers in Maryland’s Montgomery County.

Thirteen years later, about 200 volunteers participate in the program in 10 school districts in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. While most volunteers are retired, a growing number of volunteers – about 20% – are employed as scientists and engineers, joining a group diverse in age, background and professional experience.

“I like to call the AAAS STEM volunteer program a grassroots effort for good science,” said Betty Calinger, project director in AAAS’ Education and Human Resources directorate. Not only are the volunteers working in over 200 classrooms for the school year, they also attend school board and county council meetings and other community events to support science and promote the program.  They receive no monetary compensation — just personal satisfaction for doing something good for children and teachers.”

Walden, who saw few female engineers applying for jobs, decided to help address this gap at the earliest levels, getting involved as a volunteer to help children learn that math and science can be fun and interesting.

Volunteer Melody Starya Mobley also is motivated by a desire to cultivate students’ love of science. Mobley, the first black forester in the United States, spent 28 years with the U.S. Forest Service in a range of roles – from a fire public information officer to working in wildlife management – before retiring in 2005. Now her extensive volunteer work includes participation in the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program, where she is paired with a second-grade and a fifth-grade class at Carlin Springs Elementary in Arlington, Virginia.

“I’ve had a love for science and nature ever since I can remember,” Mobley said. “These young people are our future. It’s so important to show them why they should have a love for all aspects of science.”

Mobley seeks to serve as a mentor to students, especially those who might not realize that scientists come from diverse backgrounds.

“I thought it was so important for them to be able to meet scientists and know that we’re real people and know that all of us don’t all look alike, talk alike, have the same gender,” Mobley said.

Both Walden and Mobley take seriously their goal to improve students’ confidence. Walden noted a common refrain from students: “Mr. Walden, I can’t do math.” In response, he guides students to say that they cannot solve that particular problem. “I’ll help you solve that problem. If you want to solve that problem, we can solve that problem,” he said.

“Suddenly their eyes light up” upon understanding something new, said Walden. “You’ve made a difference in this kid’s life.”

Volunteers also provide real-world examples from their own careers to answer the perennial question from students: “Why do we need to learn this?”

The volunteers enjoy their time in the classroom, too.

Walden has received cards and letters from students at the end of the school year, decorated with drawings of the experiments they conducted together.

“The satisfaction is tremendous,” Walden said.

[Associated image: Jeremy Wilburn/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]