While many scientists immediately see the value of helping with K–12 STEM education, Hudson acknowledges that some say that they have pressures of their own and feel they can’t spare the time. Hudson says all that is required of a scientist is to devote an hour once in a while to show up for a videoconference with a lesson prepared for grade-school children. “We have a responsibility for educating our citizens in science,” urges Hudson. “You’re not going to turn all these teachers out there into STEM experts. You’re not going to turn the scientists into K–12 teachers. But as a partnership? It’s a winning strategy.”
Path out of poverty
|High school student Jonathan Stroud is mentored by Mohamed Rafi, Billy Hudson’s research assistant, during a summer internship. Stroud’s program mentor was Roberto Vanacore, and his research project was on Goodpasture’s syndrome.
In addition to the bus and the videoconferenced science lessons, the initiative has a third program that involves six-week summer internships for high school students doing fundamental research in various Vanderbilt laboratories. “They come from rural communities, earn a stipend, and are provided their room and board,” explains Hudson. “We challenge them to help advance our scientific objectives.”
The students are immersed in the daily pace of research and return to high school in the fall with new experiences that inspire them to work harder in school, says Hudson. The students help the teachers organize the videoconferenced science classes and earn an hourly wage while doing so.
Out of the 36 high school students who have gone through Aspirnaut internships, 26 have finished high school, and 25 of those are now in college. (The math-loving boy Hudson met on the school bus in 2005 participated in some of the Aspirnaut programs and now is in college.)
The Hudsons visualize the Aspirnaut Initiative as a pipeline. Students first get on the school bus and start learning about science, medicine, engineering and mathematics. In elementary and middle school, they get exposed to the videoconferenced labs. Then in high school, they get hands-on experience in research laboratories and find mentors to guide them to college.
The Hudsons’ biggest wish for the initiative is for it to serve as a model for other major research universities, according to Julie Hudson. “While Vanderbilt has an enormous bandwidth, we certainly couldn’t, nor do we wish to be, the end-provider for the entire nation. We have demonstrated that the model is replicable in other rural states.”
Because of the intense mentoring that goes on with the summer interns, the Hudsons get to know the teenagers intimately. “Almost every one of these students has an incredible life story,” she says. One student was born in prison and handed off to his grandmother “in a Christmas stocking” when he was three-weeks old, recounts Hudson. The boy’s grandmother became his legal guardian. Hudson says, “They lived on almost no money for many years because all they had was her pension. That was $9,000 a year.”