How doing outreach can teach you what you have to offer the world

Estimated reading time 6 minutes (1049 words)

Like many other grad students, I’ve been discouraged from doing outreach.

“You should be working on something you can publish”

“It’s noble but it’s not going to help your career”

“You can do that later in your career”

I never understood this attitude. If we’re not communicating our science and educating others,  who are we doing this for?

But unfortunately, a lot of people get pushback from professors when it comes to outreach.

It’s seen as a nice little activity that you do on the side when you have time and add a line to your CV.

But it can be so much more than that. It can change a kid’s life and give them inspiration to do something they would have never considered otherwise.

It can also change your life, as a grad student.

I didn’t personally have much experience with outreach until this last year of graduate school when I taught in a summer camp.  I honestly didn’t expect much from it, besides that it would be fun to talk to some kids.

But after spending a few days with these kids, I can tell you that they did more for me than I could have possibly done for them.

Finding your roots

The amazing scientists from this summer’s Finding Your Roots camp

It was the first time I felt I could make a difference, that I had something to offer. Instead of just sitting locked away in my little ivory tower, I could make these kids laugh, teach them something and inspire them to be the scientists I knew could be.

After this experience, I knew that I wanted to make this a permanent part of my academic life. I didn’t just want to do science, I wanted to share science.

Luckily for me, this was the year Maggie Hernandez came into my life – an amazingly talented scientista, a truly inspiring educator, and simply an incredible friend.

maggie elijah me

Fun fact: Elijah, Maggie and I have the best buns in the department.

Since I can think of no better person to talk to you about outreach, I invited Maggie to write a guest post about her outreach experience. Enjoy!
————————————————————————————————-

Hi all! My name is Maggie Hernandez and I am a first year graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at PSU. Although Tina and I are great friends (hey, girl!), the reason I am guest blogging on Tina’s blog is because of my prior experience working as a program coordinator at the Center for Precollegiate Education and Training (CPET) at the University of Florida.

Campus scenics.

This is a picture of UF. Yes, I moved from the warmth and sunshine to the cold and dead. It’s ok.

The last two years before coming here, I ran outreach programs, mostly with high school students, centered on science and science inquiry.

Me and Arduinos

This is me during my summer program, Science Quest, with one of my babies! (It doesn’t matter how old they get, they will always be my babies!)

To be honest, I stumbled into this position. The post-grad desperation of finding a job had sunk in and I needed a way to make money in between graduating and applying to graduate school. I landed a position as a student assistant.

What followed within the next two years was life changing.

Life changing

I’m not exaggerating. This position fundamentally changed the trajectory of my career. And the rest of this blog post is dedicated to why (and why outreach is valuable and everyone should be excited about it!).

I’ll start off with this: kids are probably the MOST exciting group of people to work with. Please quote me on this.

Me and SETS kids

Although my experience is limited to working with mostly high school students, some of the brightest people I have ever met have been the kids that have attended my programs and that I met through visiting schools. Please also quote me on this.

I got to interact with these students in the capacity of an educator: I taught them about bacteria, Drosophila, human evolution, and cancer. I taught them how to use micropipettes, what biotechnology is, and why it’s relevant to their lives.

SETS pipetting

Students visiting UF to learn about biotechnology

I also got to interact with them in the capacity of a mentor: these kids were not that much younger than me when I was teaching them. I could provide advice as to what colleges to apply for, what they could do to make themselves competitive applicants, and what careers look like for people interested in the sciences.

But, most importantly, the lessons that my kids taught me were by far the most life changing. And that’s not something you can write off as a line on your CV.

resume

I learned how to break down my science into manageable bits. In the words of my students, “Miss Maggie, we can’t understand what you’re saying.”

I learned how to explain material in a way that leads to understanding and fosters an opportunity for sharing unique thoughts and ideas (provided by the students!).

I learned that creating an environment where free thinking was welcome helped build trust.

And most importantly, I learned that the future of science was in the hands of these students, and that I should respect them not only as my peers but also as the people who will one day make the scientific discoveries we can only dream of.

As I am writing this now, I think of those bumper stickers people have on their cars about their dogs.

You know which ones I am talking about. The ones that say “Who rescued who?”

That’s how I feel about my kids.

Outreach wasn’t something I did because I wanted to be competitive for graduate school.

It was a serendipitous opportunity, but it became a part of me.

And the experiences, personalities, and complex dimensions of my kids did as well.

I’m here to tell you that approaching outreach with the mindset that you are providing a service to them erases the truth.

You will be changed by the experience.

You will grow and learn (sometimes more) than the people you are teaching.

And your students will be your teachers.

me with kids again

So, get involved! Volunteer in schools! Talk to students who have NO idea what you’re doing and make them excited about it! You never know just how drastically your life will change.

-Maggie


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