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Developing Scientists through Outreach

Developing Scientists through Outreach
Reported by
Alla Katsnelson

Posted April 19, 2016

Presented By

State University of New York

The New York Academy of Sciences


Research scientists who employ their subject expertise and enthusiasm to mentor school children in science and related topics often find the experience personally meaningful and professionally valuable. Children who receive mentorship, particularly those in underprivileged communities, benefit from opportunities to explore their own potential, to identify rewarding careers, and to build the skills and confidence needed to succeed. But research institutions often do not prioritize science outreach and sometimes actively stigmatize it.

Nonetheless, research careers can no longer be built on the basis of solitary work at the bench or telescope. Science is increasingly collaborative, and researchers need communication and teaching skills. Meanwhile, growing numbers of science trainees will not pursue long-term academic careers and must gain transferable skills during their studies. Participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) mentoring programs is a way for them to help struggling communities while also gaining valuable experience.

On February 18–19, 2016, the State University of New York and the New York Academy of Sciences convened a two-part conference on Developing Scientists through Outreach, the first day titled Defining Quality for the Scientist and the second titled Best Practices in Recruitment and Program Design. A series of presentations, panel discussions, and interactive workshops, explored programs that place STEM students and postdocs in K–12 learning environments to mentor and teach—a well-known strategy to repair the leaky STEM pipeline. The group sought to determine best practices to grow and better synthesize various mentoring programs. Participants also discussed the benefits both children and mentors gain from mentoring programs, as well as how to incentivize scientists to participate in these and other forms of outreach.

Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and multimedia from this event.

Presentations available from:
Emily Rice, PhD (College of Staten Island, CUNY)
Rachel Stephenson, MFA (CUNY Service Corps)
Mark Stewart, MD, PhD (SUNY Downstate Medical Center)
Robert Tai, EdD (University of Virginia)
Moderator: Jeanne Garbarino, PhD (The Rockefeller University)
Moderator: Meghan Groome, PhD (The New York Academy of Sciences)

Presented by

  • The State University of New York


  • National Science Foundation

The Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program is supported in part by the National Science Foundation (DRL-1223303). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

How to cite this eBriefing

The New York Academy of Sciences. Developing Scientists through Outreach. Academy eBriefings. 2016. Available at:

Framework for Engaging Students in Science Learning

Robert Tai (University of Virginia)
  • 00:01
    1. Introduction; When do people decide to become scientists?
  • 10:23
    2. Engaging students' interest in formal and informal settings
  • 18:39
    3. Data - Framework for observing children's interactions with science
  • 30:01
    4. Q and A on survey methods
  • 40:08
    5. Gender differences in preferred learning activities; Q and

On Balancing Outreach with Research

Emily Rice (College of Staten Island, CUNY)
  • 00:01
    1. Introduction; Astronomy research
  • 06:03
    2. Outreach: Parody videos, Astronomy on Tap, STARtorialist, Media
  • 17:52
    3. Balancing research and outreach
  • 27:42
    4. Conclusion

Panel: What do Subject Experts Want from Outreach Experience?

Moderator: Jeanne Garbarino (The Rockefeller University)
  • 00:01
    1. Introduction; Incentivizing outreach
  • 06:40
    2. Return on investment
  • 12:24
    3. Defining outreach; A typical profile
  • 21:41
    4. Relating to broader training experience
  • 28:16
    5. Personal experiences; The audiences for outreach
  • 35:52
    6. An ideal outreach agent; Maximizing classroom time
  • 43:55
    7. Behavioral issues; Targeting underrepresented minorities
  • 51:30
    8. Outreach vs. work obligations; Conclusio

Setting the Stage: The Importance of Mentoring

Mark Stewart (SUNY Downstate Medical Center)
  • 00:01
    1. Overview of SUNY Downstate and STEM mentoring goals
  • 07:37
    2. Educational challenges in Brooklyn; STEM program challenges in Brooklyn
  • 14:34
    3. Lessons learned; Mentor survey and new ideas
  • 21:03
    4. Scaling up and sustainability; Student fair
  • 31:25
    5. Conclusion

About CUNY Service Corps

Rachel Stephenson (CUNY Service Corps)
  • 00:01
    1. Introduction; Service learning
  • 06:44
    2. CUNY Service Corps; Structure
  • 14:37
    3. Student feedback and reflectio

Panel: Best Practices from the Field

Moderator: Meghan Groome (The New York Academy of Sciences)
  • 00:01
    1. Panelist introductions
  • 08:27
    2. Success and failure
  • 15:58
    3. Scale; The retired STEM professional
  • 22:02
    4. Balancing the portfolio
  • 34:38
    5. Mentee feedback and returning mentors
  • 43:36
    6. Personal relationship and outcome; Administrative buy-in
  • 56:35
    7. Looking forward; Developing mentors
  • 63:47
    8. Discourse among programs; Mentoring and the public school systems; Conclusio

Workshop 1

Organizer: Kristian Breton (The New York Academy of Sciences)

Workshop 2

Organizer: Kristian Breton (The New York Academy of Sciences)

Workshop 3

Organizer: Meghan Groome (The New York Academy of Sciences)

Closing Remarks

Phillip Ortiz (State University of New York)

Journal Articles

Besley JC, Nisbet M. How scientists view the public, the media and the political process. Public Underst Sci. 2013;22(6):644-59.

Besley JC, Oh SH, Nisbet M. Predicting scientists' participation in public life. Public Underst Sci. 2013;22(8):971-87.

Byrnes JE, Ranganathan J, Walker BL, Faulkes Z. To crowdfund research, scientists must build an audience for their work. PLoS One. 2014;9(12):e110329.

Dudo A, Besley JC. Scientists' prioritization of communication objectives for public engagement. PLoS One. 2016;11(2):e0148867.

Ecklund EH, James SA, Lincoln AE. How academic biologists and physicists view science outreach. PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e36240.

Komoroske LM, Hameed SO, Szoboszlai AI, et al. A scientist's guide to achieving broader impacts through K-12 STEM collaboration. Bioscience. 2015;65(3):313-22.

Kong X, Chakraverty D, Jeffe DB, et al. How do interaction experiences influence doctoral students' academic pursuits in biomedical research? Bull Sci Technol Soc. 2013;33(3-4):76-84.

Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences; Board on Life Sciences; Division on Earth and Life Studies; Board on Science Education; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council. Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication: Workshop Summary. National Academies Press (US). 2014.

Schaffhauser D. 'STEM careers' means engineering to parents, not teaching. Campus Technology. 2016.

Tai RH, Qi Liu C, Maltese AV, Fan X. Career choice. Planning early for careers in science. Science. 2006;312(5777):1143-4.


Afterschool STEM Mentoring
An Academy initiative that places scientists-in-training in after-school programs in underserved schools.

Astronomers Say: YouTube
Fun videos made by astronomers.

Astronomy on Tap
A series of events exploring the universe, with talks by scientists, educators, writers, and artists.

Brown Dwarf New York City (BDNYC)
A blog featuring research by the BDNYC team; Emily Rice is a principle investigator.

CUNY Service Corps
A program for CUNY students, faculty, and staff to work on civic service projects.

Classroom Champions
A program targeting grades K–8 that brings Olympic and Paralympic athletes as well as Olympic/Paralympic Games hopefuls (athlete mentors) into the classroom using videos and live chats.

Mentor: The National Mentoring Partnership
An organization that aims to improve mentoring relationships and to close the mentoring gap for the one in three young people growing up without the support of a mentor.

NYC Department of Education. Performance & Accountability: NYC Data.
Data from NYC schools.

The Pinkerton Foundation
A foundation that supports community-based programs for children, youth, and families in economically disadvantaged areas in NYC.

Rochester Engineering Society
A society bringing programs and services to enhance the profession and the community, while encouraging the growth and development of engineers and scientists for the future.

A science and fashion blog by Emily Rice and Summer Ash.


Gwendolyn Elphick, PhD

State University of New York

Jeanne Garbarino, PhD

The Rockefeller University

Whitney Johnson, PhD

Morgan State University

Vikram Kapila, PhD

New York University

Jill Lansing

State University of New York

Audeliz Matias, PhD

State University of New York

Katherine Nielsen

University of California, San Francisco

Phillip Ortiz, PhD

State University of New York

Martin Storksdieck, PhD

Oregon State University

Kristian Breton

The New York Academy of Sciences

Yaihara Fortis-Santiago, PhD

The New York Academy of Sciences

Meghan Groome, PhD

The New York Academy of Sciences

Keynote Speakers

Emily Rice, PhD

College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Emily Rice is an astronomer, professor, and creative science communicator in New York City. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Science & Physics at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York (CUNY); faculty in the physics PhD program at the CUNY Graduate Center; and resident research associate in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). She studies low-mass stars, brown dwarfs (sometimes called "failed" stars), and directly-imaged exoplanets by analyzing their spectra and modeling their atmospheres. Her research group has received funding from NASA and the NSF. In 2015 Rice was an inaugural recipient of the Henry Wasser Award for Outstanding Scholarship from the CUNY Academy for the Humanities and Sciences. She earned her PhD in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of California, Los Angeles. She produces science parody videos, organizes and hosts Astronomy on Tap events at bars in NYC, curates science fashion on the STARtorialist blog, and frequently gives public presentations and makes media appearances.

Mark Stewart, MD, PhD

SUNY Downstate Medical Center

Mark Stewart is dean of the School of Graduate Studies, vice dean for research, and professor of physiology and pharmacology and of neurology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. He received his MD and PhD degrees at SUNY Downstate, joining the faculty in 1993 after a postdoctoral fellowship. His lab focuses on the autonomic consequences of seizure activity and has identified mechanisms for cardiovascular derangements and death in epilepsy. Stewart teaches in the Graduate School, the College of Medicine, and the College of Health Related Professions, and he has a long-standing involvement with the minority training programs on the campus. He has served on multiple NIH study sections and is a representative at large for the Executive Committee of the International Society of Autonomic Neuroscience. Stewart led the development of Downstate's Office of Technology Commercialization and has been involved in establishing, among other research training programs with area universities, an MD/PhD program in nanomedicine with the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute and a PhD program in developmental neuroscience with the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities in Staten Island.

Robert Tai, EdD

University of Virginia

Robert H. Tai is an associate professor of science education at the Curry School of Education in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education at the University of Virginia. He currently teaches courses on teaching elementary science, conceptual change, and mathematics and science education policy. He previously taught courses on readings and research in science education, educational technology, fundamentals of educational research, and issues in multicultural and urban education. Before joining the faculty at the University of Virginia, Tai taught high school physics in Illinois and Texas. He has served as a research associate and a teaching fellow in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Tai was previously on the faculty of the College of Staten Island after earning his EdD from Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He received the Award for Education Research Leadership from the Council of Scientific Society Presidents in 2008.


Jenny Correa

The Pinkerton Foundation

Jenny Correa, an associate program officer at the Pinkerton Foundation, has a unique perspective on the value of Pinkerton grants. In 1998, three days after graduating from New York's High School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens and six weeks after the birth of her son Joel, she began work as an "Explainer" in the Science Career Ladder Program at the New York Hall of Science—a longtime Pinkerton grantee. She went on to lead the team of guides who take visitors through the museum, and she has presented papers and led discussions at science education conferences and been recognized as a Next Generation Getty Leadership Fellow. Correa holds an MPA from Baruch College. She moved to the Pinkerton Foundation in 2012 and continues to work in the areas of youth programs and science and technology training.

Jon Kriegel

Rochester Engineering Society

W. Marcus Lambert, PhD

Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medicine

Marcus Lambert is director of diversity and student services at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences and an adjunct professor of microbiology at New York City College of Technology. He is responsible for diversity initiatives, outreach, housing, and immigration services for more than 400 graduate students. He serves as an advisor on education policy and diversity to several organizations, including the student-run Tri-Institutional Outreach Committee (TOrC). His research interests include identifying determinants of STEM student success in higher education. Lambert holds a PhD in biomedical sciences from New York University School of Medicine.

Julie Nadel, PhD

American Society for Human Genetics; National Genome Research Institute

Julie Nadel is the genetics and education fellow for the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Her projects include the nationalization of DNA Day programming and the creation of a bioinformatics lesson plan for high school students in collaboration with the NIH Library. Nadel received her PhD in genetics from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 2015. Her thesis work investigated a non-canonical nucleic acid structure, the RNA:DNA hybrid, and its roll in chromatin composition and gene-expression regulation. She participated in several STEM outreach programs, including the Academy's Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program, and later founded an outreach program at the Bronx Renaissance Center. She also founded a community garden partnership with the Bronx, Obesity, Diabetes and You (BODY) group at Albert Einstein College of Medicine to work with local elementary schools on nutrition and public health.

Steve Mesler

Classroom Champions

Steve Mesler is cofounder, president, and CEO of Classroom Champions, overseeing the international operations and long-term strategic direction of the organization. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Olympic Committee. A three-time Olympian, Mesler led the U.S. team to gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games in 4-man bobsled. Before joining Classroom Champions in a full-time capacity, he was principal and lead consultant at Shift 210 Inc., a leadership development consulting firm based in Calgary, Canada. Since its beginnings, with Mesler the only athlete involved in the pilot working with 200 students, Classroom Champions has grown to include more than 50 Olympians and Paralympians who have mentored more than 10 000 students across the U.S. and Canada. Mesler is a finalist for the International Champion for Peace Award and was named among Sports Illustrated's "Athletes Who Care."

Rachel Stephenson, MFA

CUNY Service Corps

Rachel Stephenson is the university director of the CUNY Service Corps and TheDream.US program. The CUNY Service Corps is the largest civic engagement and professional development program at an institution of higher education in the U.S., placing over 800 students per academic year in 134 nonprofits and government agencies in NYC while also providing the students with robust training and support. TheDream.US is a scholarship program for undocumented students. Stephenson is a former classroom teacher and program director of youth development, continuing education, and workforce development programs. In 2015 she gave a TEDxCUNY talk titled Against Grieving in Silence. She holds a BA in English from Trinity University and an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

Andrea Unser, PhD

Glauconix Inc.

Andrea Unser is a research scientist at Glauconix Inc. and a recent PhD graduate of SUNY Albany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE), where her research focused on 3D brown adipose tissue engineering. As a graduate student, she volunteered in several STEM-focused career and community days at CNSE and participated in STEM mentoring initiatives in partnership with the Academy. She received the Wendell Williams Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring from her institution in 2014 and continues to participate in outreach.

Alla Katsnelson

Alla Katsnelson is a freelance science writer and editor, specializing in health, biomedical research, and policy. She has a doctorate in developmental neuroscience from Oxford University and a certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and writes regularly for scientists and non-scientists alike.


Presented by

  • The State University of New York


  • National Science Foundation

The Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program is supported in part by the National Science Foundation (DRL-1223303). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Robert Tai

Keynote Speaker

University of Virginia

Emily Rice

Keynote Speaker

College of Staten Island, CUNY


Jeanne Garbarino


The Rockefeller University

Julie Nadel

American Society for Human Genetics; National Genome Research Institute

Marcus Lambert

Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medicine

Andrea Unser

Glauconix Inc.


Children often become interested in science as early as elementary school, and mentorship helps them build and refine that interest.

Some children's preferred learning styles are tied to an interest in STEM careers; those who enjoy discovery-related activities and making things tend to be drawn to science.

Science outreach can take many forms and spur change in the scientific community by attracting a more diverse group of people to the field.

Graduate students who participate in outreach gain transferable skills and bring measurable returns on investment to their institutions.

Nurturing an interest in STEM

In the fall of 2010, the New York Academy of Sciences and the State University of New York launched a partnership funded in part by the National Science Foundation to provide informal STEM mentoring to middle school students in New York City's underserved communities. In her opening remarks, Meghan Groome, the Academy's SVP of Education, told the audience that when she was hired to recruit graduate students and postdoctoral researchers as mentors for the program, she thought the target goal of 100 mentors was unrealistically high. But scientists in training jumped at the opportunity. "We literally can't bring programs fast enough to take advantage of all the scientists who want to do outreach," Groome said.

Perhaps one of the key benefits of mentorship is the encouragement students receive to engage with science on an ongoing basis. Indeed, mentors in informal or after-school STEM programs can be hugely influential in shaping children's interests at an early age, as Robert Tai of the University of Virginia explained in his keynote presentation.

In a 2006 study, using a national database that followed children's career aspirations over multiple years, Tai and his colleagues showed that among students who went on to attend 4-year colleges, those who planned to pursue science-related careers in grade 8 (at age 14) were 1.9 times more likely to obtain a Bachelor's degree life sciences and 3.4 times more likely to obtain a Bachelor's degree in physical sciences and engineering. These outcomes were true even for students with average middle school grades, suggesting that early intention matters a great deal.

In subsequent work Tai found that 70% of scientists and 69% of science graduate students reported becoming interested in science in elementary and middle school. However, most did not decide which area of science to pursue until high school, leaving ample scope for mentors to help students build and refine their interests. "All along the educational path, you're going to have an impact," Tai said. "Working with young people is very important."

Many scientists and graduate students say they became interested in science in elementary or middle school. (Image courtesy of Robert Tai)

Most recently, Tai and his colleagues developed a framework of eight instructional strategies that can be used in schools and informal learning settings. For example, some activities involve competition; others involve discovering, building, or making something, or collaborating on a project; and some involve a combination of learning strategies. Although children tend to prefer some strategies over others, all the strategies use skills that are important in the professional world.

The researchers created a survey to assess the types of learning strategies students in a typical classroom find most engaging, and whether their preferred strategies correlate to an interest in a science-related career. So far, the survey has been given once to 7157 students in grades 3–12 in one large urban and three smaller school districts; ultimately, each student will be surveyed four times—twice a year for 2 years. The researchers recorded whether students' parents had professional or nonprofessional jobs but not whether the jobs were science-related, because such a category proved difficult to define.

Tai developed FOCIS (Framework for Observing Children's Interactions with Science) to identify the types of instructional strategies that different STEM programs invite children to engage in. (Image courtesy of Robert Tai)

The team found that some of the preferred learning styles were tied to an interest in STEM careers. Students with a strong preference for discovery-related activities in elementary school were 1.9 times more likely to indicate interest in a science-related career compared to those with neutral scores for that learning style; in middle school the students with a strong preference for discovery were 3 times more likely to indicate interest in a science career. Weaker but still significant connections to science careers were noted in all age groups among children with a strong preference for making things.

The data also revealed gender differences. Boys were three times more likely in elementary school and four times more likely in middle school to be interested in a science-related career. Boys and girls showed similar interest in discovery and problem-solving activities in grades 3 and 4, but older girls had less interest in these activities. Girls were also less interested in competition-based activities. The language of the survey also mattered: girls expressed less interest in activities that involved making things when the word "build" was used instead of the word "make."

An audience member asked whether the connection Tai observed between early interest in STEM and the achievement of a STEM college degree and career applies to children from underrepresented minority groups. It does, Tai replied, but the connection is weaker for these children than it is for white middle-class children. Data from the learning styles study will allow researchers to further explore this question, he added. In response to a question about how best to engage children in one-time sessions, Tai suggested designing activities that include multiple instructional strategies.

Integrating outreach and research

Emily Rice, an astronomer at the College of Staten Island and the American Museum of Natural History, described her synergistic work at the intersection of research and science outreach. Rice codirects an NYC-based research group called Brown Dwarf New York City (BDNYC). Because scientists can obtain detailed observations of brown dwarfs using space-based and large ground-based telescopes, the objects serve as a proxy for studying the properties of exoplanets, which are more difficult to observe directly.

Rice conducts a variety of outreach activities in addition to her research. Some, such as invited presentations, planetarium shows, and the occasional media appearance, are fairly standard for scientists. Others are more unusual. She and collaborators make parody videos, with titles including Sh%t Astronomers Say, Fund Me Maybe, and ThriftCode. She is also an organizer for a series of science presentations staged in bars called Astronomy on Tap, a concept that is starting to spread around the world, and she runs, with a collaborator, an astronomy fashion blog called STARtorialist.

Balancing research and outreach, Rice said, is less about equalizing the weight of different aspects of her career and more like balancing a chemistry equation—the balance can change depending on the conditions of the reaction. Another analogy might be a spectrum, with the two activities on opposite ends, she said, "but really, a lot of the activities we do as scientists and science mentors are somewhere on the spectrum, not at one end or the other." Perhaps the important thing is not balancing science and outreach, Rice suggested, but rather integrating them.

When planning her talk, Rice asked her students to brainstorm action words associated with research and outreach. In fact, all the words—exploring, modeling, writing—apply to both activities. (Image courtesy of Emily Rice)

Despite her career success, Rice said, she suffers from impostor syndrome. As a graduate student she often felt the need to hide some of her outreach work for fear she would not be taken seriously as a researcher. Some academics still maintain that research and outreach are mutually exclusive, that engaging in one only takes time away from the other. But in fact, Rice noted, astronomy research no longer involves sitting alone at a telescope on a dark night. Rather, it is both collaborative and competitive, and increasingly public-facing. Thus to be successful as researchers, scientists need outreach skills—the ability to communicate both with others in the scientific community and with the public.

Perhaps most importantly, the integration of outreach and research changes the scientific community itself, by attracting a more diverse group more reflective of the demographics of the general population to the field. Outreach is also about communicating, to outsiders and insiders, about who has access to the research community and who identifies as a scientist.

Rice added that not everyone who is trained as a scientist must remain in a science career; indeed, when trained scientists enter fields like education, communication, and entrepreneurship, they often broaden those fields, increasing science literacy and support for science in society.

Panel: what do subject experts want from outreach experience?

Moderator Jeanne Garbarino of the Rockefeller University began the first day's panel discussion by observing that outreach can be a tough sell at academic institutions. She asked the panelists to comment on how it could be incentivized and sustained. The metrics of success for academic scientists are research and publications, not community involvement, noted Julie Nadel, a fellow at the American Society for Human Genetics and the National Genome Research Institute. Marcus Lambert, director of diversity and student services at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medicine suggested that making outreach more prominent requires strategic thinking. Andrea Unser of Glauconix Inc. advocated adding these activities to the curriculum, either as requirements of training grants or through course credit, noting that students in her PhD program at the University of Albany could get seminar credits for participating in mentoring activities with children in the community.

The panelists recommended viewing outreach as a set of transferable skills, with a return on investment for the university in the form of trainees learning science communication, establishing a positive reputation for the institution, and giving back to the community. Nadel noted that as a graduate student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, she knew that people in the neighborhood viewed the institution as impenetrable—that nobody knew what was going on inside—and she saw that as a lost opportunity.

Garbarino asked the panelists to define outreach, and all described it broadly as any interaction with the community or any time spent away from day-to-day tasks listening to, guiding, or engaging others. Demographically, Nadel said, many researchers who engage in outreach are women and minorities, people who are often personally invested in the success of underrepresented groups. Also involved are scientists who plan to leave or have left the bench.

"Institutions are going through a transition where the average trainee is not going to make it to a top-tier research track," Lambert said. Administrators and faculty therefore need to help students consider alternative careers. But students in traditional career tracks can also benefit from participating in mentoring and outreach, and students trained in pedagogy become more competitive scientists. Nadel noted that researchers may be reluctant to engage in STEM mentoring out of fear that they will be asked questions that they might not know the answer to on the spot. She encouraged them to go ahead anyway, because, she said, experiencing these spontaneous interactions "really helps your scientific thought process."

Garbarino asked panelists about the ideal qualities of people who do outreach. A passion for science, Nadel answered; an ability to laugh a lot and say when you don't know something, Unser said; finally, Lambert said, a real care for the people you interact with—because that's what makes kids in outreach programs come back.


Mark Stewart, Keynote Speaker

SUNY Downstate Medical Center

Rachel Stephenson

CUNY Service Corps


Returning mentors are an asset: at SUNY Downstate's Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program, they train new recruits and have designed curricula that outperforms the old.

Mentoring programs need a mechanism to provide protected time for graduate students to participate.

Service learning is another model to encourage students from higher education institutions to engage with communities, helping them bridge classroom study with real-world experience at nonprofits or other organizations.

CUNY Service Corps members learn leadership and other skills that raise their employment prospects.

The importance of mentoring

The Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program run jointly by SUNY and the Academy now operates at six SUNY campuses. With 64 SUNY campuses, there is extensive opportunity for further scale-up, as Mark Stewart of SUNY Downstate Medical Center noted. He described lessons learned at his campus.

Brooklyn, where SUNY Downstate is located, is New York's most populous borough, with high levels of cultural diversity, economic need, and under-education. Graduate student mentors bring educational resources to the community and can encourage local children to attend college. Stewart began by reiterating the benefits of mentorship. Graduate students themselves benefit from mentorship, developing relationships with thesis advisors that can last a lifetime; school-age children who are mentored are more likely to succeed; and both groups are more likely to go on to mentor others.

SUNY Downstate has multiple programs to identify promising potential undergraduates, with the mentoring program focused on middle school students. Undergraduate campuses in Brooklyn tend to have very low graduation rates, possibly because students come from underperforming high schools. "Students who choose to go on to college have at least a year or more to remediate," Stewart said. Earlier mentoring could help get to the root of the problem.

Initial test-score data from schools participating in Downstate's Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program, which launched in fall 2010, show that students mentored through the program improved their understanding of STEM subjects. The teaching experience mentors gained bolstered their eligibility for competitive faculty positions or other jobs, and many returned for several semesters. That repeat engagement also boosted the program: returning mentors are now paired with new recruits, whose learning curve decreases. Furthermore, many returning mentors were inspired to design new curricula, which then outperformed old curricula.

A STEM fair held in winter 2016 drew large crowds of students and mentors, despite the snow storm on the day of the fair. (Image courtesy of Mark Stewart)

Brooklyn has over 1000 public schools but only 30 colleges and universities, only five with doctoral programs. Thus it is hard to imagine that mentoring programs run by these institutions could alone transform STEM education levels in Brooklyn. But Stewart envisions other ways that SUNY Downstate and other higher education centers could bring change; for example, surplus materials such as computers can be handed down to schools, and teachers from Brooklyn schools could be offered training and resources to become more comfortable with the science they teach.

Meanwhile, mentoring programs need a better framework to make it easier for graduate students to participate. Students must currently negotiate time spent out of the lab, and their advisors may be uneasy about the outside commitment. "We need a real mechanism to protect time" for students to participate, Stewart said. Another possibility is to implement a reward structure, such as a teaching certification, for students. A hybrid degree program training students to be both scientists and teachers is another option; this structure would be similar to the MD/PhD degree, in which students are trained to be both doctors and researchers.

"Graduate students clearly can and want to mentor," Stewart said. "We think they can drive this reverse pipeline." Built on their efforts, mentoring programs like SUNY Downstate's can later recruit and train mentors at other levels to create lasting improvement in the borough's middle schools.

Service learning 101

Service learning is another model to encourage students from higher education institutions to engage with communities. Rachel Stephenson of the City University of New York (CUNY) Service Corps explained that service learning helps these students bridge classroom study with real-world experience, matching them with opportunities to do meaningful work for nonprofits or other organizations. This experiential education thus provides both civic engagement and professional development opportunities for students to reflect on community challenges and come up with innovative solutions. For these benefits to arise, Stephenson noted, the experience must be carefully structured and supervised.

CUNY Service Corps places some 800 students from 8 CUNY colleges with 135 community partner sites around the city each year. Students work 12 hours per week for 24 weeks and are paid $12 per hour. CUNY students are a demographically diverse group, and many would not be able to participate without compensation.

Interested students attend a matching fair, where they vie for positions at participating organizations in fields including education, health care, economic development, and environmental sustainability. Students receive 14 hours of training that covers the specific placement as well as civic engagement more broadly. During the placement, each student meets regularly with program managers at the CUNY institution, attends monthly workshops with other participants, and completes personal and program evaluations.

In end-of-year assessments, most students show growth in initiative, leadership, communication, and other skills valued by employers. "There are implications here for students' professional tracks," Stephenson said. The experience can also lead to employment directly. Last year, 45% of students considered extending the experience through fellowships, internships, volunteering, or paid positions. Site supervisors say that CUNY students often emerge as more effective advocates for clients compared to other interns and report that they provide meaningful contributions to the work of the organization. Stephenson suggested that these outcomes may occur because CUNY students identify with the communities they serve, sometimes having faced the issues their placement organization aims to address.

Stephenson would like to expand STEM education opportunities in the CUNY Service Corps program; another goal is to share the CUNY model with other higher education institutions. She offered to provide further details about the program with anyone interested in setting up something similar.

CUNY students who participated in the Service Corps reported improvements in multiple skills and qualities that employers seek. (Image courtesy of Rachel Stephenson)


Meghan Groome, Moderator

The New York Academy of Sciences

Jon Kriegel

Rochester Engineering Society

Steve Mesler

Classroom Champions

Jenny Correa

The Pinkerton Foundation

Best practices from the field

In its 6 years, the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program has deployed more than 1000 mentors, with 40%–50% returning for more than one semester, and has served more than 13 000 children in New York City schools. The second day's panel discussion, moderated by Meghan Groome, began with panelists—two directors of other mentoring programs and a funder—describing what makes these programs successful.

Jon Kriegel of the Rochester Engineering Society leads an initiative that sends retired engineers into STEM classrooms as mentors. The project is modeled on one at Kodak, also based in Rochester, which from 1991 to 1996 placed 1500 company engineers in local classrooms as STEM mentors. Kriegel sees his mentors as a team of magicians who want to show students how the magic is done. Teachers often have trouble explaining abstract STEM concepts such "pounds per cubic inch," an example he encountered recently, and students leave class not grasping them. Kriegel and his team help students by building hands-on models to clarify such concepts.

Steve Mesler is CEO of Classroom Champions, an educational organization that connects Olympic and Paralympic athletes with classrooms in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. Athletes serve as virtual mentors and commit to a classroom for the academic year. The program has been running for 5 years. Athlete–mentors communicate with students through live-chat and social media technologies and focus on character development, perseverance, and social-emotional learning. As in sports competition, successes in business are measured by failures, said Mesler, an Olympic gold medalist in bobsled. Early on, his organization overlooked the need to help teachers support students in areas like goal-setting and perseverance. "One of our failures was not recognizing that teachers did not know how to teach" those skills, he said. Building in a teacher-support infrastructure has helped the organization thrive.

Jenny Correa, an associate program officer at the Pinkerton Foundation, manages a portfolio of STEM mentoring programs in New York City. She intimately grasps the mentee perspective, having started as one herself. At age 16, she fell in love with science as a summer intern at New York Hall of Science, a Queens science museum, where she stayed for 14 years, eventually running one of its educational programs until being recruited to Pinkerton. At root, she said, mentoring programs, whatever their content, rely on building long-term, trusting relationships between children and adults. Program goals change with age. For elementary-school children, the goals are to build excitement about STEM topics and to demonstrate that STEM activities are within children's grasp. In middle school, the idea is to extend that initial excitement while also exposing students to career possibilities. In high school, the aim is to engage students in meaningful work experience, be it in a laboratory or in a community garden.

Mesler told the audience it has been particularly challenging to decide how to scale-up Classroom Champions. The organization is not limited by geography, because mentors interact with classrooms virtually, but its leaders have had to be thoughtful about maintaining program quality. Mentors can work with 5–10 classrooms at a time, and the organization wants to maintain the special connection children in each classroom feel to "their" athlete, despite having never met in person. There are about 4000 Olympic, Paralympic, and other elite athletes who could serve as mentors for Classroom Champions, and Mesler expects to recruit about 10% of them. But the organization hopes to serve 50 000 students per year within 5 years. "We are eventually going to spread out into other sports and other genres," he said. "If we can do this with an ice dancer in Washington Heights, we can do it with anyone—it's simply an adult who cares, and who is doing something significant."

Kriegel and Groome agreed that a reasonable goal for programs is to recruit 10% of an expert group as mentors. The Academy's goal with the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program is to have a million learners by 2020—a daunting number. Correa noted that her portfolio includes boutique programs, each of which serves some 60–100 children in a distinct community and is unlikely to grow, along with larger programs that are encouraged to expand.

One way to build capacity, Groome and Correa noted, is to deputize college and high school students who have gone through a particular program as mentors themselves. Mentees then benefit from being taught by people close to their own age, and new mentors gain the skills and confidence to teach content they have learned. Mentees in these programs may not have considered careers as scientists or teachers, and receiving credit or pay to spend a semester or summer leading younger peers may encourage them to rethink their potential. Groome noted plans at the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program to embrace this approach in the near future.

Mentors tend to find it rewarding to see the results of their service, and program infrastructure should be designed so that they feel supported and appreciated. Programs should strive to allow mentors to develop their own skills and track their own growth, and should avoid burdening mentors with bureaucratic requirements. Classroom Champions mentors connect with each other online to build camaraderie and offer feedback. Groome noted that learning how to give and receive critical feedback is an important skill. Staff at the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program would like to implement a set of prompts—"what" (as in, what did you do), "so what", and "now what"—that would help mentors reflect on and share their experiences, and look forward.

Finally, the panelists discussed ways to share best practices among mentoring and outreach programs and to fill in gaps in existing efforts. Four years ago, Pinkerton launched a network of after-school STEM mentoring programs with a framework to collaboratively assess the different efforts and identify things that could be done differently. Correa reported that the organization would consider funding any new and interesting model arising from the group; two initiatives that have been launched are now serving 4000 children. "I would like to see that every kid in New York City has access to a number of different STEM opportunities, both in and out of school," she said.

Finding common ground

In the last session, participants broke into eight groups to discuss goals for their organizations, for their fields, and for the learners they aim to serve. They also considered the changes needed to make these goals easier to achieve. Participants then reported the highlights of their conversations.

  • Group 1 emphasized the importance of collecting data on the benefits and outcomes of specific programs. Dedicated staff managing this process would ensure that it is done consistently and treated as a requirement rather than as an afterthought. The participants recommended that institutions already collecting data on the efficacy of outreach work centralize it so that other program directors can gain insight into what has been tried. They also reiterated that attitudes toward outreach need to change, because currently, outreach practitioners are often seen as failed scientists.
  • Group 2 highlighted the need to create protected time for graduate students to participate in mentoring and outreach. Also crucial, the group said, is stable and consistent, even if modest, financial support for outreach programs, so that they do not face the threat of shutdown year-to-year.
  • Group 3 similarly discussed ways to keep programs running over the long term, with multiple generations of mentors and mentees remaining involved. They also noted the need to systematically measure STEM mentoring programs and to support sustained training and development for mentors. Such training could perhaps be coordinated with the Education and/or Psychology Departments at institutions to incorporate knowledge from these disciplines.
  • Group 4 agreed that the university administration could play a greater role, particularly by guaranteeing protected time for outreach. The group also described the culture change needed for people to recognize the value of outreach. Scientists are under immense time pressures, and a successful outreach model would be centralized, with a dedicated staff to ensure that graduate students emerge with training and skills useful for the non-laboratory careers they may wish to pursue.
  • Group 5, returning to systemization, noted the importance of soft metrics, such as authenticity of experience and long-term results and engagement. The group also suggested expanding programs to seek mentors in local businesses, to expose students to different types of leaders and promote cross-disciplinary interests and ideas.
  • Group 6 recommended that programs remove artificial barriers to mentoring, such as the misconception that people who are quiet in class would not make good mentors. Convincing high-level administrators—say, a Provost—to find time to mentor could create buy-in among scientists and lower administrators. The group also suggested that mentoring programs emulate Google and other informal communication structures that have led to innovation.
  • Group 7 proposed that STEM mentees could benefit if programs treated science learners as language learners—striving, in other words, to make concepts easier to understand. Meanwhile, they thought, recruiting experts might be easier if the benefits of participation, such as much-improved communication skills, were made clearer.
  • Group 8 brainstormed a list of groups with whom STEM outreach and mentoring programs should seek better relationships: schools of education and science within institutions, policy makers, industry scientists, and academic researchers with diverse urban and rural perspectives. Such bridge-building could also help scientists make research activities more accessible to the public.

In closing, Phillip Ortiz of the State University of New York noted that STEM skills are highly valuable because of their applicability to life skills and to a wide range of STEM and non-STEM professions. He also encouraged attendees to consider mentoring and outreach not as one-time effects, like changing the orbit of a meteor by striking it with a rocket, but rather as long-term interactions that change the trajectories of both mentor and mentee.

How can STEM mentoring programs at research institutions convince established scientists that outreach activities are valuable and not simply time lost away from research?

What are the best ways to create protected time for graduate students and postdocs to engage in mentoring and outreach activities?

How should programs that rely on graduate student mentors provide training to ensure that these participants gain skills that will help them in the job market?

How should mentoring and outreach programs scale-up and expand?

How can mentoring and outreach programs throughout the city, state, and country learn from and coordinate with each other?