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Helping Students Imagine a Future in STEM

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The new STEM Ambassadors Program, a collaboration between Tisch College and the Center for STEM Diversity, is aimed especially at underrepresented youth.

STEM Ambassadors at a school in Chinatown

Earlier this semester, ninth-grade students in Medford and Boston’s Chinatown sat around tables and tried to figure out how many of them had Ebola.

Fortunately, it wasn’t an unreported outbreak of the deadly disease. It was an interactive workshop run by Tufts students as part of the STEM Ambassadors program, a new collaboration between Tisch College and the Center for STEM Diversity at the School of Engineering. Through this initiative, Tufts undergraduates visit local high schools and expose students to the myriad academic and professional possibilities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Reaching out to Students

“The goal of STEM Ambassadors is to get young people excited about the sciences, especially those students—girls, youth of color, and those who would be the first in their families to go to college—who have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM majors and careers,” says Kelly Nguyen, the Massachusetts Campus Compact AmeriCorps*VISTA at Tisch College and a Medford High School alumna, who helps spearhead the program.

“Through interactive presentations and activities on everything from chemistry to coding, we try to expand their notion of what scientists and engineers do. Hopefully it connects with something they’re interested in and sparks a passion, and we encourage them to pursue that passion through higher education,” she adds.

During February and March, a group of seven STEM Ambassadors gave their presentations to several ninth-grade Physics classes at Medford High School, and to various 8th-11th grade classes at Josiah Quincy Upper School (JQUS) in Chinatown.

“We wanted to open up science opportunities for our high school students and wanted our students to engage with students who have access to science,” explains Carolyn Joy, Head of STEM in Medford Public Schools. “In addition, we wanted a diverse student group to show the high school students that anyone can do STEM, and the STEM Ambassadors program provided that.”

Led by the Tufts undergraduates, students explored topics like drug development, computer encryption, and genetic engineering. They extracted DNA from strawberries, combined chemicals to create a glow-in-the-dark substance, used household materials to build models of prosthetic legs and, yes, traced the path of an infectious disease from a (hypothetical) patient zero.

These interactive workshops were especially valuable. “Students were able to do hands-on activities that they might not be able to do elsewhere, especially since we can’t do labs in the school,” says YuYu Chen, head science teacher at JQUS. “This was a great way to introduce them to those fields and the kids had a wonderful time learning about the different topics.”

At the end of each presentation, the Tufts students also answered general questions about college and shared a handout with information on local, science-related internships and summer jobs.

Training Communicators and Leaders

Given the positive feedback from students, teachers, and administrators, the program is set to expand in its second year, with plans to go into classrooms during both semesters and a larger cohort of Tufts students serving as STEM Ambassadors.

“All seven current students are continuing and we added five more,” says Kristin Finch, Program Administrator at the Center for STEM Diversity. “We had more applicants than we had slots, and they were all really strong.”

It should be no surprise that the current STEM Ambassadors signed up for a second year, as they reported finding their interactions with local students engaging, edifying, and fulfilling.

“I think it was a lot of fun presenting to the high school students,” says Mahrukh Malik, A17, a Biology and Community Health Major.

“They’ve been really great: they’ve given us their attention and they’ve asked some good questions about high school and college,” adds Dylan Phelan, A16, a Computer Science major. “If they are willing to just listen, to do an activity and see if it’s cool, that’s all I could ask for—and we’ve gotten that.”

The Tufts students have also been thrilled with the opportunity to expand their abilities as science communicators who can reach varied audiences and explain their work in a compelling manner.

“It’s a very valuable skill, to be able to take your thoughts and translate them in a way that people who aren’t doing what you’re doing can understand it,” says Biochemistry major Kevin Ngan, A16. “It’s a skill that a lot of scientists don’t have and I really appreciate my ability to be able to do that for high schoolers.”

For many of the STEM Ambassadors, the program is also personally meaningful: a change to give students what they never had. “In my high school, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to be introduced to science experiences outside the school. There weren’t a lot of outreach programs, there weren’t a lot of research opportunities that I knew of,” says Phelan, adding that luckily he was able to connect with individual teachers who went on to serve as mentors.

Ngan underscored the importance of that kind of mentorship in his own academic trajectory, and hopes that in some small way, he and the other STEM Ambassadors might be playing a similar role with the students the program has reached.

“I really enjoy doing outreach and I really enjoy mentoring,” he says. “I think it’s a great way to lead people on a path that you think has a lot of potential for success, and sometimes that’s what kids need. They just need that extra push.”