Medical and graduate students who volunteer for science outreach programs don't just help underrepresented public school students consider careers in science, according to a survey published last week in Science. They also help themselves.
Sixty-five percent of high school juniors who participated in an eight-week summer laboratory internship are continuing to pursue careers in science and medicine, according to the survey's results, and nearly one-third of the graduate students who staffed the outreach programs are still involved in community outreach for the sciences after graduating and embarking on their scientific careers.
Researchers surveyed both students and public schoolteachers who participated in Washington University in St. Louis' Young Scientist Program (YSP) as well as volunteer graduate and medical students who ran the program. YSP focuses on St. Louis-area public schools in Missouri and Illinois. Many students are minorities and come from low-income families. Resources for science instruction are scarce at many of the schools.
As expected, high school student participants had expanded insights into science and research, with one 2006 survey of 200 students showing significantly improved understanding of the nervous system after a visit from a team of graduate students who taught a neuroscience module. The survey also revealed that volunteer mentors felt the experience improved their teaching, mentoring and communication skills. In addition, they reported surprising benefits from their exposure to the infectious enthusiasm of program participants.
"Working with these students helped me remember how exciting it used to be to just do very basic science procedures, like isolating DNA," says survey coauthor Stephanie Strand, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at Washington University and former YSP director. "Those are things you forget, and it's good to be reminded."
With the exception of one paid administrator and one faculty adviser, the YSP is staffed and run by graduate and medical students at Washington University who volunteer their time. The YSP's initiatives include:
• eight-week summer research internships for high school juniors interested in science;
• curriculum development and research internships for science teachers;
• teaching teams of graduate and medical students who give science lessons either on the School of Medicine campus or at public schools
Beginning immediately after students and teachers take part in YSP programs, they are regularly surveyed to assess how the experience affected them. In 2002, the YSP steering committee mandated a detailed retrospective assessment of the programs' effects once every five years. The paper in Science, which appears in the education forum of the journal's print edition, is mainly focused on the results of the 2002 retrospective evaluation.
"If only one child in the St. Louis Public Schools had their lives changed by the YSP, that would be a successful result," says senior author Thomas A. Woolsey, M.D., faculty adviser for YSP and the George H. and Ethel R. Bishop Scholar in Neuroscience in Neurological Surgery. "And it turns out that many, many students have had their eyes opened and gone on to do things that they probably could not have done had these programs not been an option for them."
The programs are continually evaluated and modified by the volunteers who run them. The key goal is to give students real-world experiences that can help them decide whether to pursue science careers.
"Basically, we show these students that you don't have to be a super-genius to pursue a career in science," Strand says. "The thinking is that graduate and medical students not only can convey the excitement of doing science because they're at such an early point in their careers, they also can serve as a more tangible role model for younger students who think they might be interested in science."
Lead author Moriah Beck, a graduate student at Washington University who recently stepped down as head of the YSP, also emphasized the benefits of exposing scientists as "real people."
"We had a group of 100 students come here recently on a field trip, and I asked them how many had met a scientist before, and maybe four or five hands went up," Beck says. "We gave them all a chance to meet and interact with scientists, to see that they're real people and ask them questions."
"The programs also seem to be as valuable for those who choose not to pursue science careers," Strand notes. "The practical experience of actually doing research in a real lab can help them make that decision."
YSP leaders are currently working to establish an endowment for the program. The program's initiatives have been funded in part by grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Washington University's Medical Scientist Training Program, Office of Diversity Programs, Medical Center Alumni Association, Genome Sequencing Center and the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences; Pfizer Inc.; and the American Association of Anatomists.
Beck MR, Morgan EA, Strand SS, Woolsey TA. Volunteers bring passion to science outreach. Science, Nov. 24, 2006, pages 1246-1247.
Washington University School of Medicine's full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.