March 2013

Undergraduate-driven science outreach

University of Arizona program shows high-school students that high-tech degrees actually are not beyond their reach

Logo for the University of ArizonaThe University of Arizona’s Visiting Scholars Program, established in 2011, sends undergraduates out into Tucson-area high-school biology and chemistry classes to discuss their research projects and talk about university life. On most outings, one student gives a presentation about his or her work, and the other takes photos and helps answer questions. The following are brief reflections, edited for length and style, from members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Undergraduate Affiliate Network who are participating in the program and from their adviser, James T. Hazzard.
James HazzardOne of the joys of being a faculty adviser for a UAN chapter is working closely with undergraduates to establish beneficial and viable outreach activities, like the VSP, in which students discuss their research — a requirement for all the biochemistry majors at our institution — and engage the high-school students in a dialogue about the college experience.

The inspiration for the VSP came primarily from two observations. First, since the inception of our annual undergraduate research conference, a number of high-school students have presented very sophisticated posters describing their research, which is often being done on our campus. Second, for a number of years our department hosted a one-day event in which high-school students from across Arizona were invited to a series of presentations and visits to research laboratories … I noted that high-school students were reluctant to ask an older faculty member, such as me, questions about preparing for and surviving college. My suspicions were also strengthened by seeing the inhibitory effects of the cool factor in two teenage granddaughters. Dutifully taking a scientific approach to this problem, we developed a working hypothesis that the high-school students would be much more willing to engage openly in conversations with UA students. Fortunately, not all hypotheses are disproved!

Now that our fall semester has ended, we are reflecting on how to continue to improve the VSP. As a faculty adviser, a serious concern for such an outreach activity is its future viability. Although the present group of students has engaged in the activity enthusiastically, there is no guarantee that volunteers will continue to step forth consistently. Therefore, we have begun to convert our all-volunteer activity into a formal class for academic credit — always a good carrot.

Our model for this transition is the outstanding outreach program* established by Hannah Alexander of the University of Missouri. Whereas Science and Me targets an older audience, we will continue to engage high-school students, especially those likely to be the first in their families to attend college, let alone pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.

Melody Kroll* See the December 2011 issue of ASBMB Today for a feature by contributor Melody Kroll on the University of Missouri’s Science and Me program.

Additionally, calling upon the diverse nature of research in which our biochemistry students are engaged, we will shift the focus of attention of our talks away from the specific details of the students’ research, which often exceed high-school students’ background knowledge, to topics of more general public interest. Finally, we plan on offering formal training in effective public speaking practices to the undergraduate participants as well as designing more sophisticated assessment tools.

As we continue to refine and develop our outreach activity, we are confident that the VSP is a worthy project that benefits not only the target audience but also the undergraduates. Putting together a talk about topics that are often scientifically quite sophisticated in a manner that people with a smaller degree of technical expertise can understand requires a great deal of thought and careful planning. Hopefully, participation in the program enables our outstanding students to speak professionally and eloquently to the general public.
As a senior biochemistry major, one thing I have been able to do through the VSP and other outreach programs is to give back for all the help and opportunities I’ve received. As a high-school student at Tucson Magnet High School, part of my motivation for choosing to pursue a career in science came from the opportunities I had to conduct lab experiments through my school’s Research Methods program. It piqued my fascination with research at the UA. I benefited from the mentorship of both the UA students and faculty. The VSP has allowed me to take on mentor roles at local high schools.

The reception of VSP has undeniably been positive, with many enthusiastic responses from both students and teachers. For the students, we have been able to answer many questions ranging from “Can I study the brain in college?” to “Do you have to study a lot in college?” and “How much does college cost? And how do I pay for it?” Additionally, we have been able to inform students and teachers about research internships … That each of us in the VSP has been a part of all of these internships, which have been instrumental to our current successes, and that we are all Tucson natives allows the students to see firsthand that such programs are within their reach.
Angela Schlegel
For me, most impressive was the large number of detailed, thoughtful questions the students had about my translational research on Parkinson’s disease. In the second of the two classes I presented to, I did not finish my presentation because of the number of great questions the students had; when the bell rang for lunch, several of the students immediately clamored for permission to stay longer so I could finish. After I finished my presentation, a group of students wanted to take a closer look at the research poster that I presented at last April’s ASBMB annual meeting, giving me the opportunity to explain the poster-making process. At the end of the visit, the teacher whose biology class we visited expressed a strong interest in having us return to give more presentations in the future and even asked about scheduling a lab tour or activity for his biology students.
Shiana Ferng
Joey QuirozOur program aims to visit numerous high schools in the Tucson area, including those with large populations of underrepresented minorities in science. While visiting Flowing Wells High School, which has a diverse student body and a large Hispanic student population, I asked each student what his or her plans were after college; the majority of the students answered that they wanted to work in construction or as salesmen or were undecided. Not one of the students was interested in or even knew about careers in science. Fortunately, when my question-and-answer session ended, a young man came up to thank me and said, “I didn’t know there was so much one could do in science.”

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