Making Science Cool for Kids with K-12 STEM Outreach

If you love kids and science, you can have your cake and eat it too with a career in K-12 STEM outreach. Photo credit: flickr user jasonsbytes

If you love working with kids and you love science, why not find a career that allows you to have both? I mean, who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? I know what you might be thinking: I’m in grad school. I’m busy. And plus, I want to teach college kids. K-12 is for pre-college teachers. These thoughts also came to my mind as I started working on this blog post. For me personally, after I decided to go to grad school I kind of put pre-college kids out of my mind since I was moving on to “higher education.” If I teach anyone, it’s going to be college kids. But it turns out that there is a lot that people in higher education can do to help prepare the next generation of scientists to be successful future leaders—and it’s up to you whether it’s something you just do on the side, or something that becomes the focus of your career. You may have already known that. Perhaps you’ve already done some science outreach things and have even personally demonstrated to kids how cool science is by making ice cream for them out of liquid nitrogen and heavy cream, right before their very eyes. But have you thought about what difference your contributions can actually make? What gets Sharlene Denos going every day is the knowledge that her efforts are helping to make a difference in the future of science in America. From her experiences working in K-12 schools, Sharlene (Ph.D. in biophysics, 2009) has found that the greatest need in K-12 STEM education is for more inquiry-based learning.

Sharlene Denos performs science experiments with kids. See kids—isn’t science fun?

“The way science is taught, it’s as though everything has already been figured out,” Sharlene said. “When children leave the classroom, they don’t feel empowered like they could actually contribute something to science, and I think that’s a huge problem.” The reason it’s a huge problem is because these kids are the future of our country. If they’re not prepared to take on scientific challenges, or have misconceptions about what science is all about, what then is in store for the future of science? Sharlene has set out to make a career out of crossing academia with K-12 outreach. She loves working with kids and says her goal is to become a professor that helps bridge the gap between research scientists at the university and kids in grades K-12. There aren’t many people in academia doing that sort of thing. But that’s one of the things she wants to help change. One of her goals is to help people in academia find ways to “participate effectively in [K-12] science education,” even if it’s not the focus of their careers. For Sharlene, it all started when she got to grad school and found opportunities to get involved in K-12 science outreach. Initially it was just something she did on the side. That is, until… …she got a fellowship through the National Science Foundation (NSF GK-12 STEM Fellowship). Sharlene emerged from two years on this fellowship with experience teaching in a local school, developing science curriculum, and facilitating professional development workshops for science teachers. "During that time I really caught the science education bug,” she said, with a laugh. “It wasn't until then that I thought, 'I really like this, I really want to do this as a career.' But I wasn't sure exactly how that could happen.” At this point in our conversation I had a burning question: What about your adviser—did he freak out? Thankfully, no. Sharlene said she is grateful for her adviser who always supported her K-12 outreach pursuits. But she said she knows not all advisers would be that understanding. Ain’t that the truth… After getting her Ph.D., she stayed at the University of Illinois as the K-12 Outreach Coordinator for an NSF-funded center and is now also the Project Coordinator for an introductory course on K-12 science education (known as iRISE). Sharlene will soon be taking on a post-doc through the Center for the Physics of Living Cells at Illinois and hopes to ultimately get a faculty position that allows her to do education research and K-12 science outreach. “My ideal position would be one within biological sciences, but my research would be in [K-12] education, or it could be a sort of shared appointment,” she said. Sharlene’s advice to anyone who is interested in K-12 science outreach is to just get out there and start doing science with kids. And for those who are pretty sure they want to make a career out of improving K-12 STEM education, Sharlene highly recommends the NSF GK-12 Fellowship. For more information: The NSF GK-12 fellowship website is chock-full of links to K-12 STEM Resources. Also, there’s a new movie/documentary out about the troubled state of education in America, called Waiting for “Superman. Update (3/8/2011): The NSF GK-12 Fellowship program is being canceled due to budget cuts. Boo! According to the article in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6021.1127), this comes as a big surprise and disappointment to many who are involved in K-12 STEM education. There are, however, some who are campaigning to save the program (details in the article).

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. Hi: Just wanted to drop you a note that when using flickr images, you need to receive permission from the user to republish, unless they are marked as free for use under creative commons licensing. The Museum’s images are not marked as such, so are therefore not available to be republished without permission.
    Thank you!

  2. Hi, Sorry about that. I’ve removed the photo and I’ll be sure to be more careful next time. Thanks for the heads up!