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Guidelines for Starting a STEM Volunteer Program

The Rationale for Using Senior Scientists and Engineers to Assist K-12 STEM Education

The 2010 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which focused on science, but also included reading and mathematics, is very revealing. The study was an assessment of the understanding demonstrated by 15-year olds in 70 countries. The country ranking of the U.S. was 23 for science and 31 for mathematics. The full study can be found on the OECD website. Improvement of our K-12 STEM education must become a high priority if we are to maintain our position in the world.

The enthusiasm of teachers and volunteers was demonstrated at the April 2011 AAAS-SSE Annual Meeting, which highlighted many aspects of the volunteer experience through a panel discussion led by Dr. Shirley Malcom, Head, AAAS Education and Human Resources. The panelists discussed the benefits that volunteers bring to teachers and students, the satisfaction gained by volunteers, and the challenges of integrating volunteers into the classroom. An article about the presentation and video clips of the panel discussion can be viewed through the links below.

AAAS News Article (view online, AAAS News Archives)
AAAS News Article (view PDF)
Video about Volunteering – Overview
Video about Volunteering in Elementary Schools
Video about Volunteering in Secondary Schools

Senior scientists, engineers, and medical personnel volunteering in the classroom can significantly enhance learning, preparing students to deal with critical issues in modern society and motivating students to pursue technical careers. We outline alternate approaches, based on current projects in which senior STEM professionals support K-12 science classroom education, and suggest ways to organize to accomplish this goal.

Steps in Organizing a STEM Volunteer Project

The steps necessary in starting a STEM volunteer project are described below. Their sequence will generally follow the order of presentation, but may differ, depending on the local circumstances.

Form a Planning Team

  • It will probably be the case that a single individual decides that a new project should be developed. However, it is highly desirable to attract a few (two or three) others, to join a planning team.

Select the Project Type

Select the Organization Type

There are two ways of organizing:

  • With a partner. Potential partners include school districts, universities, science museums, federal labs, federally funded research and development centers, and technology companies. The attributes of a partner can include: contact with the local school district, provision of meeting rooms, partial or total funding, assistance with recruiting, creation of web site, maintenance of volunteers’ database, assurance of continuity in project leadership. One or more of the members of the organizing team may be employed by the partner. Current examples are county office of education (TOPS), university (RESEED), science organization (AAAS/SSE Science Volunteer Program)
  • As a 501(c)(3). Examples are Santa Fe Alliance for Science, RE-SEED of Silicon Valley, Maine School Science Volunteers, and Community Resources for Science.

Coordinate with School District

  • It is essential to establish close coordination with the local school district, with their active support for the various activities of the project. Of particular importance is assistance in identifying teachers who will welcome the presence of scientists and engineers in their classrooms. The district interface should be someone with a significant responsibility for science education, such as a science curriculum supervisor.
  • A Memorandum of Understanding may be desirable in order to delineate the roles of the major parties.

Acquire Funding

  • Possible costs include salary for project management, travel for volunteers, publicity, construction of web site, management of volunteers database, provision of lunches and refreshments for meetings, and purchase of experiment items.
  • The best source for funding of the pilot phase is a local foundation. Funding for operations may continue to come from the foundation, but should be augmented by business sources in the community. As of September 2010, there is no source of federal funds.

Recruit Volunteers

  • Volunteers will include retired scientists, engineers, and medical personnel, together with some who are working part time and wish to contribute to K-12 science education.
  • The number of volunteers should be increased gradually as operating experience is gained. The number for the first year should be modest, in the range 5-10.
  • Options for recruiting include announcements by local sections of professional societies, notices in newspapers, posters in public venues, newsletters and emails to alumni of local technical organizations.

Train Volunteers

  • Training is essential, since the environment in which the volunteers will be working is totally different from what they have experienced in their professional careers.
  • The content of the training session will depend on the type of organization, which has been selected. It may contain the following: descriptions of the classroom ambience, the curriculum, and the science inquiry process (most school districts use this process in some form), advice on how to establish a volunteer/teacher rapport, guidelines on school regulations, such as fingerprinting, signing in, and wearing of badges, and guidelines on interactions with the students. The latter include warnings to avoid physical contact, and, with the possible exception of mentoring and tutoring, to always have a school employee present when interacting with students.
  • It is essential for school personnel to participate in briefing the volunteers.
  • It is also essential for experienced volunteers to share their experiences. For the first year, this may be achieved by enlisting scientists and engineers who have already been providing assistance on their own recognizance.
  • Useful information on how to help train volunteers can be found at the Volunteers Improving Science for Teachers and Students (VISTAS) website.

Conduct Oversight During the School Year

  • It is important for the project leader and assistants to maintain visibility of the activities throughout the school year. For extended commitment projects, this should include introduction of a new volunteer to his/her teacher, and periodic interactions to ensure that the relationship between the volunteer and teacher is progressing smoothly and, if not, to take remedial actions.

Each project should have a set of supporting documents, as exemplified by the ones described in the AAAS/SSE STEM Volunteer Program, which were developed for the Montgomery County Public School system.


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