STEMM outreach with socioeconomically disadvantaged students
STEMM outreach is an essential component of STEMM community engagement, education, and science communications. There’s a lot of strategy and finesse in translating scientific principles into captivating demonstrations. However, there are additional challenges that many don’t know about when it comes to running STEMM outreach with social justice-oriented missions, ones that target audiences from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds for sustained engagement.
In this interview, I chatted with two friends I’ve worked with closely in STEMM outreach to talk about the unique challenges of running an outreach program that targets students from marginalized communities. In part 1, we cover topics including challenges of reaching middle school students, parental effects on STEMM enthusiasm, sustained community engagement, and motivations for getting into STEMM outreach. Check out part 2 on the importance of art in STEMM and reflecting diversity in volunteers!
Murchtricia Jones, Sydney Rosenblum, and I worked together as directors for the University of Michigan’s InnoWorks chapter, an organization that puts together week-long summer camps for socioeconomically disadvantaged middle school students. Murchtricia is a PhD candidate in bioinformatics; Murchtricia re-started the organization after a long institutional hiatus and served as the executive director for three years. Sydney Rosenblum is the current director of U-MyScI, the rebranded InnoWorks chapter, and previously served as the logistics director for two years.
These interviews have been shortened and edited for clarity and anonymity.
Abbreviations used -
SES: socioeconomic status
STEMM: science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine
On personal motivations for getting into STEMM outreach
HC: So, I wanted to start off in the meta and the purpose of STEMM outreach. What were your personal motivations for getting into this type of work?
Sydney Rosenblum (SR): STEMM outreach [at the middle school] age group was appealing to me because I think that this is the age where STEMM either becomes a barrier to pursuing science education or it becomes the inspiration for why you do it. To me, outreach like this is important to improve what young people think what scientists look like, their idea of what scientists do day to day. [Outreach shows] that there’s no one type of way to do science, especially nowadays with so many sources of technology.
I come from a very privileged background and I think that it’s important for people to be allies to people who don’t have the resources and it was important for me to give to a community who I think don’t have fair opportunities to access STEMM.
Murchtricia Jones (MJ): I really wanted to do outreach of this kind particularly because I can relate to these students in that way. Because I came from a low socioeconomic disadvantaged background, it was due to awesome people who were willing to sacrifice of themselves and of their time that I am in the sciences right now. I understand what it is to come from an environment or community in which things like STEMM is inaccessible at many different levels whether it’s resources, whether it’s teaching style, whether it’s certain teachers making science accessible to students. One of the reasons why I wanted to work in outreach in that way is because it’s so important for us to provide these opportunities for students. That’s why we worked so hard to keep InnoWorks free so that these students can have that opportunity unhindered.
As Sydney said, this is a time in their life in which they decide whether or not they like science. It’s even more so the case for students from their background because in this point in their lives, science and mathematics and medicine may seems too inaccessible and so difficult, it seems there’s some sort of barrier between them and that field.
Our job going into InnoWorks was to lower this barrier. So that’s what really drove me to do an organization like InnoWorks because we need to continually do our part as people who – whether or not you were underprivileged and became privileged or you’re privileged and still privileged or whatever you know? It’s our job to make sure that barrier is lowered for these students if we have the ability to do so.
On institutional challenges for reaching audiences from
SES disadvantaged communities
HC: Organizations like InnoWorks and now U-MyScI have targeted missions of supporting students who are from disadvantaged SES backgrounds. Let’s touch on some of the difficulties we’ve had in recruiting students, including logistically based on types of institutional support that they already have at their middle schools.
SR: In terms of recruiting students, we get a lot more response from schools who are already geared to provide these sorts of things and schools where maybe it’s not their priority, they don’t tend to respond or they’re harder to communicate with. It seems like it’s not their priority or not their focus. Schools that are responsive already have a framework for how to introduce that sort of stuff to their kids or already have similar resources so they’re like, “Oh kids like this stuff! We’ll send them more opportunities for this.” I think institutionally, the people that respond and the organizations that respond limits our exposure to kids in certain areas.
MJ: I think that for the students that we have the most access to are students that have teachers and administrators in their schools who are willing to provide more opportunities for their students in terms of staff. If that is not available, then those students are not accessible to us.
On parental influence determining STEMM engagement in young students
HC: From our past couple of years, we’ve seen a really wide variation in what parents asked from us, in terms of what we could provide ranging from a letter of recommendation to special needs accommodations to literally getting resources to provide to their children. What have you observed and what do you feel about these different kinds of challenges.
SR: Parents are huge drivers of participation. And their parents are like, “I wanna get my kids into STEMM!” and it’s likely that they’re already in STEM or in the health fields themselves.
MJ: You can see the difference between the students’ engagement during the camp, was whether or not their parents were engaged with this process. [Some] parents really want their students or their children to break into these fields, [and] they were much more excited about the camp in itself. But then we had parents who just wanted to drop their kids off for a week.
With students from low SES backgrounds, we see parents who are working all the time, who have two parents working and things of that nature; those students are even less accessible to us especially because of the application process that we had because parents had to be extremely involved in that process, things just didn’t get done. That definitely played a role in whether or not those students were really accessible to us.
In terms of the support that parents asked for, we did see a wide variation in that. From “I need a letter of recommendation as proof that they did well in this camp,” to “Do you guys have anything going on at the University because I can’t afford Christmas gifts for my kids.”
I wouldn’t call it familial support; I would probably call it familial resources. Some students’ focus coming into the camp was more so that they were able to get breakfast and lunch every single day while other students were coming into the camp to meet university professors that I can intern with. There’s such a variation and we see that based on how many familial resources these students have. That plays a major role in one, how we interact with these students and two, what we provide for these students. I think we did a good job at determining what students need and where they are coming into the camp and what we need to provide for them in that way, and we see that with the familial relationships that we’ve built in the organization.
SR: In a lot of ways, we had to determine on the fly what kids needed and I think that was something that I don’t know if it’s easy to assess prior to the camp. In some cases, there are really clear things that we could’ve known going into it, could have avoided certain things, or known ahead of time what certain support we needed to prepare. But part of it is that in how flexible the camp is, and how much we try to provide support.
On setting good intentions when working with disadvantaged communities and sustained community engagement
HC: What is the impact of setting intentions when working with students from marginalized communities?
MJ: I feel like volunteers [and the executive board] should be like, “Why are we actually doing this?” Because a lot of people go into this outreach for glorification of self rather than assistance of these students. We see this in our volunteers every single year. It’s important for people going into something like this, a director doing it for the entire year or a volunteer who is going in during the week, why exactly are you doing this?
One of the major reasons why organizations as a whole, not just U-MyScI, get in weird situations with students is that a lot of us, a lot of volunteers, come in with this mindset that “I am saving you. I am helping you. We are going to do this together so that this is more accessible to you.” Many reasons why schools don’t communicate well with organizations, like ones affiliated with the University of Michigan, is because they have been in many different situations, and I’ve spoken to assistant principals in certain schools in which organizations come in like they’re coming in to save the students, do something really quickly, and then leave and never see them again. That’s one of the reasons why when we re-established InnoWorks is that we want to continue having relationships year after year with parents and families because we want to ensure that we are helping mold these students so that they can pursue what they want to pursue. If we do what we do and then drop our students, what is the point? Why are we doing what we are doing? That is so, so, so, important to ask yourself.
It’s clear many of our volunteers that they came into get it on their CVs. They spent an hour a day and then went home. They established no relationship with students and I’m not saying that an hour a day is bad. What I’m saying is that they came in for an hour a day, did their tasks, and left instead of trying to get to know a single student. It’s more than just the science. What is your motivation?
SR: It might sound cheesy but set your intentions. As an organization with a social justice component, it’s important to provide volunteers with that [social justice] education [because] as we’ve mentioned, they don’t come into it from the same place or the best place.
MJ: What biases do we have when interacting with students from low SES backgrounds. What are we coming in with? What do we need to change in our minds so that we are effective volunteers and effective teachers for these students?
One thing I want to mention is community engagement and establishing relationships with community entities. [It] is important for us to establish good relationships with the [local] community and become a community establishment, to become a name that is known so that parents and students are comfortable in the environment. That’s how we boost morale and boost the impact of the organization, boost finances. We can say that the first year of InnoWorks, people were super unwilling to give money and when the second year was a success, they were like, “Ok yeah, that was a success. We’ll give you money. Even though last year, I was not giving you a thing.”
As we continually engage in our community within the University and with the surrounding areas, it’s so important for that to happen so that your organization is continually successful. If your organization is not instilled in your community, if the organization disappears, no one is going to ask what happened to it. But I think that if U-MyScI disappears, if InnoWorks disappears, people are going to be like, “Okay?” It will be noticed in some ways. Community engagement in local levels is so important.
It also makes it so that the parents are more willing to give their children to us. Like they know we won’t do anything to hurt their children and they know we will be there to assist them every summer type thing. They can start as a student and later become a junior mentor until they graduate high school. This is something that they can be in for a really long time and is something attractive to parents that they can get this – that we can have that relationship with their children and some place that they can be comfortable dropping off their kids for a week in the summer.