Peeking behind the curtain of running an outreach program
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.
Here, I continue a conversation with two friends I’ve worked closely with to talk about the unique challenges of running an outreach program that targets students from marginalized communities. Check out part 1 where 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. Now in part 2, we cover challenges in reflecting diversity in volunteers, soliciting financial support, fostering art and creativity in STEMM, and advice on working in STEMM outreach.
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 challenges of reflecting diversity in mentors and
volunteering as a marginalized person
HC: Let’s talk about the logistics of running an educational outreach program because there are inherent things to consider like your target audience (the students), managing volunteers, etc. How are these logistics complicated by having a social justice driven mission?
Sydney Rosenblum (SR): At least as far as I can see, there’s a population of people who are more likely to volunteer or more capable of volunteering, or maybe this sort of thing appeals to them for some reason or another. Historically, we haven’t had a whole lot of representation in our volunteer staff and currently our executive board is not super diverse. It very much became the people who, not to stereotype, but have the privilege [to volunteer]. Like I know not everyone who is white comes from money, but there are a lot of other privileges that are associated with that. And so, I will say that is a logistical [challenge in] recruiting volunteers that will really be able to connect with students on multiple levels, not just science, or not just one aspect, and also providing a more comprehensive view of who participates in science, not just at Michigan.
Murchtricia Jones (MJ): I think that it’s hard because the stigma of minority people, people of color, people from low SES backgrounds, [even] in middle school, the fact [STEMM education] isn’t accessible to them really follows us to the graduate school level. If you think about it, it’s that even [the case] for myself, who has made the sacrifices to organizations like InnoWorks. The issue with that as a student of color at the University of Michigan, you’re so focused on not being the dumb one – plain outright. You’re so focused on ensuring that you’re meeting every single deadline because, of course, in the African American community to get that far you have to be twice as good, you have to work twice as hard. That’s really where our minds are at as African American students at an R1 research university. So, the thought of even sacrificing lab time, study time, for an organization like this, even as beneficial as it is to people who where we’re from, the thought of sacrificing that time and that energy takes a lot out of us.
For myself, that week at InnoWorks I’m like “mmmm.” And that’s probably [there] for every grad student volunteer but specifically for that imposter syndrome thing: “Do we belong here? Is it ok that I’m doing this? Is it ok that I’m sacrificing time out of lab to do this?” That mindset has to be transformed in minority students at this level so that we can give the time to organizations such as InnoWorks or U-MyScI.
We [can] talk about imposter syndrome but also especially as an African American student, being the only one in my department, some students are also tired of being the token. We don’t always volunteer for certain things because I’m tired of being the one always emailed to volunteer because I’m black. I’m tired of the only time I talk to them is during interview weekend when they want me to do tours and host something because they want to ensure that people see diversity. That exists in every place. So, I think that’s something we need to think about when we think about African American, minority students in general for volunteers.
SR: I’m very lucky to have a PI who is supportive of me doing outreach and is also kind of invested in educating younger people. There are other PIs who I can imagine aren’t super supportive of [outreach] or don’t see why [outreach is] important or are like, “Yeah that’s important but have someone else do it, you don’t have to,” for whatever reason. I am very lucky to not feel that and yet I felt like I couldn’t take the whole week off. I was like I have to work half days. The first year, I woke up super early so that I could work almost a full day before I started in the afternoon so there’s that. I can imagine it’s so much harder for someone who feels like they have so much more to prove. I think maybe [that could change] if we loop in more faculty, [but] I don’t know how to fix that. I think that we need to work on our volunteer recruitment and how to support our volunteers as they’re participating in the camp.
On the explicit inclusion of art in STEMM outreach
HC: We’ve talked on our own about changing STEM to STEAM through the explicit integration of art and fostering creativity. What I saw, especially from last year’s camp, was when we had opportunities where they could be more creative like building things on their own is what really starts them being invested in what we’re doing rather than handing them worksheets. What are the kinds of challenges that comes with trying to imbue the organization with creative outlooks?
SR: [Creativity] is something that’s really hard to facilitate and teach if kids don’t already have kind of that mindset. There’s a lot of cases, like in public schools, where things are taught in a specific way and you are learning from how to get from A to B to C. Whereas there are other tools in certain disciplines where it’s more appropriate to take the windy path and you’re learning as it’s winding. Traditionally in STEMM, that’s [not always] appreciated. It’s more like, “Oh no, learn this chemical formula or learn this reaction,” and there’s less room for that creativity, even though that’s often how kids learn. I think it’s important to integrate different creativity styles, but also different learning styles that allow kids to be more authoritative in STEM.
MJ: It’s so important to incorporate the arts in STEM because I feel like when the students were able to be creative, they were able to engineer their own – when we told them here’s what you’re doing, figure it out, they were so much more engaged, they were so much more excited about the process. And I feel like they learn so much more in that versus us having them in a lab and telling them to do this lab protocol.
What I will also add to that is that the issue we are having nationally in teaching students that way, in incorporating the arts into STEM, is finances and resources. The labs that we allowed engineering and in which we allowed students to figure it out on their own were so much more expensive than labs in which we just had a lab protocol. If you think about classrooms in high schools, in middle schools, in which a teacher who wants to be creative and wants to do things like elephant toothpaste, wants to do slime, who wants to do things like that. If the resources are not available at an institutional level, many teachers have to take out of their own pocket to be creative in the classroom. So much more so in low SES communities. If we want students to learn by being creative but if the resources for creativity are not there, they lose that entire portion of STEMM. They lose the engineering mindset and lose the creativity, and all they get is the regurgitation of information because all they have are textbooks and not even that many in some cases. It’s so important for us to touch on that. We know how students learn, we know how they do it better, but if it’s not accessible to them, what do we do with that?
SR: One of the earliest experiments I saw at camp was the submarine one and the amount of creativity – I was blown away! I could never think of these things. For me: What’s the best? What’s the fastest? What’s the simplest?
Art and visualization are extremely important in STEMM on any level. Nowadays, microscopy is huge and that’s explicitly visual. There are so many things that we ignore [or] we don’t even associate anything visual with science and we need to incorporate that because there are a lot of kids who are really visual [learners] if it’s artistic like graphic design, whatever it is. A lot of the time, it’s so segmented and for a lot of us who chose interdisciplinary [graduate] programs, we believe things should be integrated, so why not integrate visual arts?
On soliciting financial support and finding allies in departments
HC: In my personal experience in applying for funding for the program, there was always this weird department or institutional tension between doing a program with a progressive mission like InnoWorks/U-MyScI versus how we spin it to the department so that they will fund you. How do we do that without compromising the integrity or morals of the organization?
MJ: I think you’re right in that we need to spin [organizations like Innoworks] to the departments and we see that even when we ask for financial aid from these departments. They don’t give to InnoWorks because it’s an amazing organization and they don’t necessarily give to InnoWorks because it’s truly helping these students. We have to spin it in a way, “How does this benefit your department?” because all departments have to do DEI work of some sort and supporting InnoWorks is a benefit to them. In terms of my department, they said, “Yeah, we really hope a student from bioinformatics continues being the chair of InnoWorks or whatever so that we can continue to put it on our grant applications.”
SR: Yeah, they are getting something out of it when they are funding us.
MJ: They’re getting something out of it so I won’t sit here and say that no department on the University of Michigan campus is truly going after this mission of assisting students from lower SES backgrounds so that the sciences are more accessible to them. What I will say is that many times it’s not a departmental focus but rather a person in the department who is willing and putting forth the effort to make sure that their department supports an organization such as this. Many times, in many departments, if there is not someone who is putting forth the effort for the department to make an impact in this way, that impact is not made.
On advice you’d give to yourself or others running STEMM outreach
HC: Doing this outreach as directors, all as graduate students, is really emotionally laborious. Are there conversations that you wish you had had or advice you wish you could have considered before taking on a project like this?
SR: It’s important to build a team who is similarly invested.
SR: One of the challenging parts for me right now is trusting other people to help me out because we’ve had issues with that in the past. So, I keep thinking that I need to have my hands in every single thing because I need it to get done and I’m trying to trust that people who are still here are invested, are here because they want to be. Finding the right balance between a little pushy and kind of taking a step back and being like, “Ok, you’re making this decision.”
There are some days that I wish I could do this full time. If I could dedicate my whole time to this, I could make this amazing. And because sometimes my lab work isn’t going the way I want it to, [I think,] “Screw this, I’m going to do U-MyScI all the time.” I think it’s important to balance letting go because I’m very much the type to want everything to be perfect and to go a specific way and that just doesn’t happen. And I can’t give it the time it really truly deserves because I have to split my time.
MJ: When I founded InnoWorks, [a like-minded team] was the first thing that I knew I needed. My advice for myself is that I am a do-er and if it’s not going to get done, I’m going to do it. But finding that balance is so, so, so, important. We are a student organization, so we are students first and that’s something that was difficult for me. My thing is that establishing clear communication and transparency is of the utmost importance because say if you do find that group of like-minded individuals.