We are organizing UW-Madison's Science Expo at Madison East High School.
To help improve representation and connections with the broader Madison community, we have developed the Science Expo: a one-day, in-school program in collaboration with Madison East High School, where students will interact with researchers across the life-sciences through hands-on experiments and discussions. The second annual Expo is scheduled for Thursday, October 12th 2023!
Our goals with the Expo are two-fold:
First, we want to give high-school students who may not be interested in science the opportunity to learn what scientists do, what questions we ask, and how we answer those questions.
Second, we want students who may already be interested in science to interact with researchers who reflect their identities, developing a sense of belonging in the sciences and learning how to navigate a career in science. We believe this will be especially important for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, who may not see or interact with scientists who match those backgrounds.
Volunteer participation roles include:
Running a mini-experiment for students
Presenting their own research questions and methods
Providing advice and resources on careers, education, and research opportunities in the sciences.
This event is grounded in evidence-based research. Read our proposal below.
Introduction - who we are We are the Antiracism Learning and Action in Neuroscience Group - a collection of graduate students and faculty in the neurosciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Our primary mission is to further antiracist impact at the University by developing community-focused actions to support historically underrepresented groups. This includes educational outreach for the life sciences that gives back to our communities and helps foster a new generation of scientists. We believe that our proposed outreach event will encourage student interest in science careers and help to cultivate identities in science.
Supplement overview We believe that an effective science outreach program should rest on two fundamental tenets: First, the program should have its roots in empirically successful techniques and be supported by research on what makes outreach programs successful. Second, the outreach should offer novel and complementary services to programs the University and the school district already perform. Moreover, these tenets should be addressed with an effort to give historically underrepresented students (including but not limited to representation of race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, income, and ability) an opportunity to see the life sciences in a new light and provide lasting benefits to ensure students interested in the life sciences remain interested and develop strategies to enter the field.
In this supplementary document, we hope to further explain why the proposed Science Expo program meets these two criteria. In the first section, we explore the body of research on outreach programs, and how such programs can be important for promoting literacy in the life sciences and fostering science identities, especially for historically underrepresented students. In the second section, we provide further details about the outreach program, and why it presents a unique opportunity for students to learn about emerging research.
Learning from Past Scientific Outreach—How can we make our outreach effective? The goals of this particular outreach event are twofold:
To increase student interest in science careers or subjects for those who may be new to science, and
To foster science identity so students who are already interested in science continue pursuing their goals, particularly for students who may lack interest in the life sciences or a concrete science identity due to historical underrepresentation.
Increasing opportunities to develop science identities is especially critical for students with diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, who may not be able to point to concrete examples of scientists who match their identity. For example, in a recent Nature article that discussed the experiences of successful Black scientists, Dr. Kishana Taylor, now a virologist at the University of California, Davis, pointed to a lack of representation as a reason for almost leaving science; as the single Black member of her department, she did not find herself welcome to openly discuss issues related to her identity (Gewin 2020). Lack of representation and the feeling that one’s identity does not fit into the world of science leads students to drop out of science at the undergraduate level as well. Research suggests that while undergraduate students of different racial backgrounds declare science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors at similar rates (19% white, 20% Hispanic/Latino, 18% Black), there are racial discrepancies in what groups eventually receive STEM degrees (Riegle-Crumb, Irizarry, & King, 2019): In one study, while 58% of white students who declared a STEM degree went on to receive it, only 43% of Hispanic/Latino students and 34% of Black students did so. Members from these groups were found both to have higher rates of switching disciplines and higher rates of dropping out of school.
Additionally, because the outreach will only be a single day, we need to ensure that interest and science identities can be engaged in a short time frame. To ensure our program has the best chance of success and can effectively increase student interest and foster identities in the life sciences, we reviewed literature on outreach efficacy. Drawing on research from our review indicates that the proposed Science Expo meets criteria that have been proven to be effective in achieving the goals of the program.
Interacting with scientists fosters interest
When reporting reasons for entering STEM fields or choosing a scientific career, students frequently report personal interest as the reason for entering that field. More generally, multiple studies report the significance of personal interest as being the primary reason for choosing a major or career (Hall, Dickerson, Batts, Kauffmann, & Bosse, 2011; Beggs, Mullins, Bantham, & Taylor, 2008). The same studies have indicated that exposure to scientific career information has a large influence on personal interests. As such, it is important that all students can learn about scientific careers and subjects so they can fine-tune their interests and choose the best career path for them, which, with improved scientific outreach, has the possibility to be in the sciences. One proven means of imparting scientific interest to K-12 students is through graduate student presentations (Clark, Russell, Enyeart, Gracia, & Wessel, 2016). In one study, Ph.D. science students interacted with middle school students by visiting schools and presenting their current research. Even after this short presentation both students and presenters reported benefits from the experience. Students reported significant gains in scientific interest with 70% of students reporting piqued interest and 60% of students considering science for a career after the presentation. In addition, presenters also reported benefit from the experience, as they received ample opportunity to practice presentation performances and enhance their presentation materials (Clark, Russell, Enyeart, Gracia, & Wessel, 2016).
Personal connection helps develop science identities
While an important aspect of our program is increasing student interest in the life sciences, we also want to provide opportunities for students who are already interested in scientific fields to connect and identify with researchers and scientists as role models. Oftentimes, scientific findings are divorced from the researchers conducting the science; while we know what new research means, we sometimes don’t connect that with the scientists themselves. When students talk with scientists directly, they can learn what researchers do in their day-to-day jobs and make concrete connections with researchers as individuals. By identifying with existing scientists, students will be more likely to continue with a science degree.
In order for our program to be successful, we therefore need to foster a sense of belonging in science, otherwise known as a science identity, in all students who attend the Expo. Evidence from research on inclusive teaching suggests that the educational outcomes of students of diverse backgrounds are tied to the race or ethnicity of their teachers, professors and other role models. During K-12 education, educational outcomes, including persistence into more advanced classes, is affected by the race of instructors, with studies showing that being taught by diverse educators increased the chance that historically underrepresented students would resume enrollment in advanced courses (Klopfenstein, 2008). Klopfenstein theorizes that this effect may be facilitated by diverse educators doubling as role models for underrepresented students. Additionally, individuals often choose people of the same race as role models, and students of diverse backgrounds who enroll in science classes with professors of diverse backgrounds are less likely to drop out of a STEM major (Karunanayake & Nauta, 2004, Price, 2010). The lack of visible role models may be a key factor in the achievement gap for historically underrepresented students. With this in mind, we intend to recruit a diverse panel of presenters to engage with students during our proposed Science Expo, with the hope that they will have a positive impact on the career choice and educational outcomes of students involved. Students of all identities will be able to interact with a set of researchers who not only study a diverse array of topics but also have a diverse set of identities. To reach the goal of our program, all students should have the opportunity to talk and identify with a researcher who shares their identities. By putting names and faces to our research, this program seeks to encourage the development of science identities.
Location matters: a case for events on the high school campus In addition to presentations by graduate students increasing audience interest in science, the location of the outreach event impacts the success of the program. In a recent study, science interest outcomes were compared between an event that was held in-school (during school hours on school grounds) and another that was organized as a community open house (Gall, Vollbrecht, & Tobias, 2020). In-school outreach had two benefits, relevant to our proposed program, when compared to the open house outreach: First, personal interest levels in science improved only in the in-school outreach, as only students in that condition reported significantly increased personal interest levels after the program. Second, the study concluded that in-school events reach a more diverse audience (Gall, Vollbrecht, & Tobias, 2020). Because our proposed expo event will be held during school hours, with students and teachers participating during their assigned science class periods, we believe our program will result in similar outcomes to the above mentioned study and be successful in increasing interest in science, particularly for historically underrepresented students. Moreover, in-school outreach events have the benefit of being cost-effective and less burdensome on the school district, as no transportation or admission costs are needed. Even short outreach programs, for instance those that only consist of a one-day visit, are effective at increasing student interest in the sciences. Researchers have analyzed the results of surveys and interviews of students after a one-day, interactive graduate student presentation of research or scientific subject. Students were reported to show increased enthusiasm and curiosity for scientific subjects (Laursen, Liston, Thiry, & Graf, 2017). An added benefit of these presentations was their tendency to show students a diversity of identities. For instance, this study noted that most of its presenters were female, which was stated as having a potential effect of dismissing scientist stereotypes. Teachers also gained advantages from their own participation in such an event, with teachers learning new techniques to employ during typical class periods (Laursen, Liston, Thiry, & Graf, 2017). Such research suggests that even a brief program like ours has the potential for success. Our take on the research
What event is the best format to achieve our two goals and capitalize on previous research? The in-school science expo has specific benefits that support our goals for the current proposal. For one, a science expo can take place during the school day and in the school itself, allowing us to reach a more diverse set of students and use a setting which is known to increase interest in science. Audience members of previous events report attending for reasons linked to an increased interest in science such as an appreciation for interacting directly with researchers, and participants in science expos mark them as highly influential in obtaining new personal interests associated with science (Jensen, 2014). Science expos have been determined by researchers to enhance student interest in science subjects, while also learning new facts about scientific subjects (Canovan, 2019).
Importantly, science expos are noted for their ability to offer better learning avenues for students who attend. One recent study interviewed students, teachers, and organizers to determine the best features of expos. Interviewees and survey-takers reported that there are organization styles that can help amplify the enjoyment of learning during science expos. Researchers reported that allowing students some autonomy in what subjects they engage with during the event as well as having multiple engaging activities is highly liked by students (Canovan, Granger, & Luck, 2019). This flexibility also allows students to attend stations and talk with researchers who share their research interests and their identities, allowing for each individual to find their own place in the sciences.
The in-school Science Expo – a unique program In the previous section, we reviewed literature which supports our novel proposal. Here, we discuss the practical considerations of the Science Expo and discuss our proposed format in-depth. This should provide a greater understanding of the format of the event, as well as provide points of discussion for logistical concerns that would need to be addressed in this program.
The Expo would consist of a number of stations on a wide variety of life science related topics, and students would peruse these stations, learning about the projects we are currently conducting and talking with the researchers, including scientists with underrepresented identities. During their science classes, instead of taking part in a typical class period students would move to a central location, such as an auditorium or a gymnasium and walk through the fair, finding topics and experiments that interest them and learning from those particular scientists. This format provides concrete examples of what science researchers do and who science researchers are, allowing students to see themselves reflected in the work the university does and the scientists the university produces.
Discussions of the proposal with teachers at Madison East High School have been positive, and we are in ongoing discussions with teachers to ensure the Expo suits the needs of their students without disrupting class time and to clarify details of the Expo. Currently, we have agreed to use the inaugural Expo as a pilot program with a smaller pool of students and presenters with the goal of scaling the Expo up depending on interest in future years. Students will be drawn from biology courses, allowing approximately 90 students to visit the Expo per hour. To meet this need, we anticipate recruiting 30-40 individuals to staff these stations. We also anticipate having two blocks of presenters, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
The content of the stations themselves would be targeted in four specific areas highlighted in the poster for the event:
‘Ask a scientist’ stations;
Advice stations for discussing how best to succeed in STEM careers;
Resource stations to learn about new STEM opportunities.
At the ‘ask a scientist’ stations, students can attend posters devoted to cutting-edge research presented by undergraduate and graduate students. These stations will be paired with the demo stations, where students can participate in hands-on activities centered around this work. As hands-on engagement has been shown to be a highly effective outreach tool, we believe students will increase their interest in the life science, have a greater understanding of how science is exciting, and be more willing to consider it as a career path (Paris, Yambor, & Packard, 1998, Vennix, den Brok, & Taconis, 2017). Students will also be able to talk with researchers to ask questions about how research is conducted and what it is like to work on a study. This could be particularly useful for students who may not currently be considering the life sciences for further education. For these students, we need to highlight how exciting science can be and provide opportunities to interact with real-world science experiences. We can also highlight other programs the University does offer at the fair, capitalizing on current student engagement in the fair and providing future opportunities to nurture that engagement.
Some students attending the fair, however, may already know that they are going to pursue a life science degree. For those students, we need to reaffirm their place in science while providing information about how to succeed and convey what their path through a science major looks like. Our advice and resource stations can cater to these students directly by providing information about how to succeed in a life science career and how to get involved in research themselves. Students will have questions about what classes they need to take, how to get involved in research as an undergraduate, how to find mentorship, and what they do with a science degree, including working in a University or an industry setting. We can also provide them with the expectations of what undergraduate work and the life science careers look like, so they can be better prepared to enter the field and more likely to complete their science majors. These stations could be particularly useful for underrepresented students, who may have additional questions about whether there is a place for them in science and how to navigate coursework and advancement in a white-male majority field. By talking with scientists with diverse identities about their experiences in science and by having stations devoted to life sciences at the undergraduate level, we can help these students see that life science fields have places for underrepresented students, and that their identities are represented in science.
Additionally, motivated students will have the opportunity to work directly with researchers by presenting or volunteering at the event. Students who have conducted research over the summer can use this Expo to present their work to their peers, thereby improving their science communication skills and demonstrating to other students that research opportunities are available and attainable. Student volunteers would help with setting up and tearing down the space, collaborating with us for additional ideas for booths, and advertising the event with students and staff at the school. Presenting and volunteering with us provides additional opportunities for students to connect with researchers and learn about the work that scientists do and how their identities shape their studies.
Finally, we want to ensure our role in fostering science identities and promoting science doesn’t end at the end of the Expo, and that relationships between presenters, teachers and students don’t end when the event ends. This sustainability takes place in two forms. First, by ensuring the event occurs annually, we can see students year-after-year and develop stronger connections. Second, we would be interested in working with you in developing a program for continued interaction with researchers after the event ends. This would ensure students have a chance for continued discussion about interest in science and how science and identities interact.
Potential risks and challenges The format thus far has assumed an in-person event in a central location at the school. However, given the uncertainty associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the potential for schools to still be closed in the winter of 2022, we want to be prepared for the event to accommodate strict social distancing guidelines if necessary. Fortunately, East High School has a large tennis court area that is of sufficient size to hold a large number of booths. Tents could be erected to provide cover in case of inclement weather.
Moreover, some criticism of science expos suggests that they do not facilitate diverse audiences, but recent literature has challenged that assumption. Science expos have employed various tactics to promote diversity within their audiences, such as changing the location of these events (Bultitude, 2014). In suggesting the expo be held within schools and during the school day so that all students can attend, we believe we can effectively combat this criticism and facilitate a diverse audience. Additionally, studies have noted that science expos that hope to distribute information about scientific careers may need to alter their approach; students who were surveyed in this study did not report that they learned much concerning careers or career options, even though that was a goal of the event (Canovan et al., 2019). As such, the study authors suggest informing students of the goals of the event before they even attend in order to solve this issue. By promoting the Expo as an opportunity to learn about cutting edge science, talk with scientists, and learn what a scientist does, we believe we can address this concern.
Our review of the existing literature provides evidence that a science expo taking place during the school day and within the school itself will be an effective program in both increasing interest in science and in fostering science identities for all students. Additionally, we found evidence that increased interest can occur even during a one-day event. The foundation of the program is based upon these findings. We believe that this event will provide the greatest impact to students, and the opportunity for a greater number of students to interact directly with scientists who represent a variety of identities will not only result in increased interest in the sciences but provide a greater connection to the science that students learn in the classroom.
Conclusion The themes of research posters, hands-on interaction, and advice and resources about entering or continuing science are critical, as we believe that these themes would be most beneficial for increasing interest and knowledge about current science and allowing for students to form their science identities by talking with scientists currently in the field. Additionally, the format of the event as an in-person, during-class program is supported by empirical evidence and provides an opportunity for us to maximize student engagement and learning. Finally, this program allows presenters to share their work with students and teachers as science educators and as community members, providing opportunities to learn about cutting-edge research and connect the concepts students learn about in the classroom with the people conducting the research. We look forward to hearing your feedback on this proposal and talking with us about the Expo.
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