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Pulling Our Weight in This Sputnik Moment

Pulling Our Weight in This Sputnik Moment

How a NYAS STEM education partnership responds to the President's call.

When President Obama gave his State of the Union address on January 25 and referred to "our generation's Sputnik moment," I wondered how many viewers knew what he was talking about. To the digital natives, who might have Googled "spud nick" to figure it out, a space race with the USSR must seem quaint in an era of global warming, mass species extinctions, and hyperawareness of global famines, wars, and seismic events. But those who understand the reference know how exciting it is to have a President put STEM education at the center of federal economic competitiveness, national security, and education policies.

While the President's support is imperative, improvements to STEM education require institutions and individuals to effect positive change in their own backyards. To this end, the New York Academy of Sciences and New York City's Department of Youth and Community Development in partnership with almost all of the major research institutions in NYC created the Afterschool STEM Mentoring program in 2010. The initiative recruits graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to volunteer in the City's poorest neighborhoods through a network of community-based programs.

Young scientists, who commit one hour per week of their time for a semester, learn to teach engaging, hands-on science curriculum in a supportive and informal learning environment. By participating in the program, mentors gain unique experience, have the opportunity to give back to the community, and might be inspired to consider education-focused career paths.

Getting permission and encouragement from one's Dean or lab head has proven vital. Many enthusiastic mentors don't complete the training once their supervisor discovers what they have volunteered for. Other young scientists who haven't been exposed to great science teaching hold misconceptions about how to engage a room full of middle school students.

While commitment and an excellent program design can get you far, the real work comes once the mentor comes face-to-face with kids who have already had a long school day and believe that science is inherently boring. In this regard, our program is no different from the first time a regular teacher steps in front of the class. And like successful teacher education programs, support from an experienced educator can turn a bad first class into a successful second class.

The way I see it, there are two clear ways to answer the President's call for a new Sputnik era. All scientific organizations, no matter the size, should dedicate a percentage of staff time to improving STEM education. And school districts, big and small, should open up paths to allow enthusiastic professional institutions to develop relationships with districts and schools. With 117 mentors working in 58 programs in all 5 New York City boroughs, the NYAS–NYCDYCD partnership greets the President's call to action with a demonstration of what's possible.

Meghan Groome is Director, K-12 Science Education Initiatives at the New York Academy of Sciences. She completed her PhD at Teachers College Columbia University in Science Education with a focus on urban science education and reform.