“What do you all think a scientist looks like?”
Jennifer Baily, co-president of the Young Scientist Program and a Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Ph.D. student, stood in front of a group of Woodbridge Elementary School third graders. Silence didn’t linger long between her question and the answer that followed. Third graders tend to be an eager group, and the students in teacher Kathleen Barth’s class were no exception.
“With a white vest and goggles that go around their eyes just in case something might be dangerous,” a girl said.
It was a good answer, one that OSHA would approve of, and with help from other Young Scientist Program members, Baily outfitted a third grader with a white lab coat and goggles. She asked if the student looked like a scientist now and the class’ answer was a resounding yes. But there was a deeper idea behind Baily’s question, one that went beyond safety attire in the lab.
“What we want to show you all with this exercise is that you don’t need the goggles and you don’t need the lab coat to be a scientist,” said Baily. “All you have to do is ask questions and be really excited about learning. And all of us are scientists; we’re not wearing goggles and lab coats right now.”
Creating equity in STEM
In the last year, the Young Scientist Program has engaged roughly 1,100 students across the San Joaquin and Sacramento counties, bringing science education with a flair to underserved and poverty-stricken communities in the region. The mission: to encourage students, regardless of their background, to pursue higher education and careers in STEM fields.
“We are promoting diversity in science by challenging stereotypes about what it means to be a scientist or who can be a scientist,” said Briana Rocha-Gregg, founder of the Young Scientist Program and a BMCDB Ph.D. student.
“I came from a rough neighborhood and never envisioned going to college,” she continued. “When I got to a point where I made it through undergrad and I could reflect, I realized that a lot of that had to do with me just not knowing any scientists. I could never really perceive it as something that was feasible for me.”
Rocha-Gregg and members of the Young Scientist Program want to make sure other children never feel that way.
A growing program
Since its inception in 2014, the Young Scientist Program has grown from a one-person outfit to one supported by nearly 100 graduate student volunteers at UC Davis. About 45 new undergraduate and graduate student volunteers joined the program this year alone, according to co-president and BMCDB Ph.D. student Abby Primack. And UC Davis students are gaining just as much from volunteering with the program as the children who are benefitting from it.
According to Rocha-Gregg, a 2016 informal survey of Young Scientist Program volunteers revealed that only 13 percent of the program’s volunteers felt confident in their ability to talk about science with non-scientists. She surveyed the group later and found that 90 percent reported increased confidence in their ability to discuss science with non-scientists.
“One thing that’s been important for me is to develop and nurture this sense of commitment to community engagement and sustained outreach and getting out there and realizing that you can’t just stay cooped up in the lab,” said Rocha-Gregg. “You really need to go out into the public and talk about research, and you can fight misconceptions about science in that way.”
“We really tailor their volunteer participation to relevant skill development,” added Primack. “They can participate in grant writing, curriculum building, finance, event organization and general leadership within the organization.”
Each year, the groups revamps the curriculum to reflect a new area of science, designing new notebooks and lesson plans for the students. Two years ago, the focus was microbes, and last year, the program created modules around model organisms, bringing zebrafish, roundworms and fruit flies to classrooms and explaining to children how scientists use these organisms to advance knowledge.
“The kids got to look at all these model organism underneath the microscope and answered questions about whether they think the animals all have brains, DNA, eyes, a heart,” Primack said. “This year, we’re doing industrious insects.”
Back in the classroom: A lesson in lassoing beetles
The terrarium was small, but the beetles inside were mighty. The third graders, working in groups of roughly five, had just finished inspecting black display cases holding insect specimens. There were green valley grasshoppers, sunset-colored alfalfa butterflies and a polka-dotted saltmarsh caterpillar. But the students’ eyes were now fixated on the beetles being passed around the room.
Passalidae, commonly known as bess beetles, are a shiny black with striated abdomens.
“Beetles are actually stronger than humans by weight,” said Baily, noting that the class was going to perform their very own experiment to measure this strength.
Young Scientist Program volunteers helped the students fashion sleds out of paper towels and string. Each group then gently tied the opposite end of the string around their assigned beetle and loaded their paper towel sled with pennies. Using scales and mathematics, the volunteers helped the students calculate how many times its body weight their champion beetle could carry.
“Who do you think had the strongest beetle?” Baily asked after the class regrouped.
The strongest beetle in the class, it turned out, carried 17 pennies, roughly 41 times its body weight. “No way!” a student said. Even the weakest beetle could carry around 2.6 times its body weight. “That’s still like you carrying three of your friends at once,” Baily said to the class.
As the session wrapped up, the Young Scientist Program members said their goodbyes. But the day wasn’t over. They collected their materials and headed to the next classroom scheduled for their day at Woodbridge Elementary School.
For Barth, who’s had experiences with the Young Scientist Program before, their return reaffirmed her affinity for the program and its volunteers.
“One of the things that I thought was so impressive was that the college students really adapted their terminology, their explanations, to the level of the students,” she said. “They were able to answer in a way that, you know, really exuded enthusiasm, natural curiosity, not necessarily answering the question but asking another question to the students that would help them to elicit an answer.”
And that’s what it’s all about: creating equity in the STEM fields by inspiring future generations.
Learn more about the Young Scientist Program