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Informal Learning: From STEM Clubs to Careers in Science

Mariah Jenkins

Education Intern at the California Academy of Sciences
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From STEM Clubs to Careers in Science (Transcript)

Mariah: The question that they’re trying to answer is how is pollution and climate change and habitat loss affecting the species’ population? So you guys, just are going to, collect some data and then we’ll gather in and see what we got and that should be a lot of fun.

I kind of always liked the idea that science explains the world around us. These huge broad concepts, this whole idea about the world around us, and it explains it in simple terms that anybody can understand.

That’s so pretty. It’s really close, too.

Student: So you’re just gonna go into this and then click “Existing bird areas”.

Elizabeth Babcock: So at the California Academy of Sciences we offer a really robust set of opportunities for kids in middle school and high school. What we’ve developed is a portfolio of programs that really range from performing arts to digital learning and we’ve designed those programs to intentionally link to each other. So that young people can enter through one program and then move on to another program and continue to develop their expertise. Mariah started with the Science Action Club. She was able to move from there to apply to be a Careers-in-Science intern and was accepted into that program. So she was able to take all of the experiences that she gained in her middle school after-school program and then parlay that into her experience as an intern with the academy.

Mariah: We’re gonna be recording the different birds that we see on the yard.

Elizabeth Babcock: In the Science Action Club programs and after-school program in which middle school kids get to do authentic science through some citizen science projects that they do at their school site.

Mariah: Information and data that we collect can really be important in a lot of different research, like, human impact on bird populations in urban and suburban-- all different types of setting. And, of course, we’re doing it in a kind of urban, city environment.  

Elizabeth Babcock: Most importantly, they do authentic science that is part of a national scientific question that’s being researched.

Mariah: How is pollution and climate change and habitat loss affecting the species’ population?

Mariah: You’re actually participating in, like, authentic research and giving to a real database and you’re being a part of this thing that’s bigger than you are.

And you guys need binoculars, too, right?

Student: Yeah.

Mariah: I think that experience is life changing for a student who is just in middle school.

You guys, there’s a unique bird right there. It’s a brown-headed cowbird. You got it! You’ve seen two.

Elizabeth Babcock: A lot of programs and a lot of organizations are embracing this model of putting the kids as the leaders of the experience and having them create the experience for themselves with what might have been called in the past “the teachers” serving more of a mentorship or a coaching role.

Mariah: If there’s one specifically you don’t know, you can always use the app. What are its main colors?

Elizabeth Babcock: They come to us with a real curiosity and an interest in science, but what we see after their time with us is deep content knowledge. More important than that, they actually understand how science is done and the nature of scientific inquiry.

Mariah: So now you guys know that the information and the data that you guys collected today is going to be put into a lot of important research and you guys are citizens doing your science.

Teaching at Denman was a lot of fun because I used to go to Denman and I got to spend time with students who were once me.

Teacher: So let’s see if we can find what?

Mariah: Some info-graphs that display data and--

Elizabeth Babcock: The Careers-in-Science internship program is a four-year program and it’s a paid internship. She is considered a part of the academy’s staff where they get to work alongside our scientists here at the academy.

Teacher: What two topics do we have?

Student: E-cigarettes and leeches.

Teacher: And they loved both of those.

Mariah: Being an intern I’ve learned a lot about the importance of being a teacher and also of being a leader. One of my favorite, like, forms of teaching would have to be writing for KQED and having the things that we’re so passionate about actually published.

Teacher: Around seven thousand Tweets about e-cigs in total and we contributed a strong, almost three hundred to that number.

Mariah: Students from all around the country get to read our article and they get to debate about the topic that we choose.

Teacher: Mariah, do you want to do the next one?

Mariah: Yes, it should be prescribed by doctors for addicts, not just freely sold to teens and adults who don’t need it.

Teacher: What do we think about that?

Mariah: We see the Tweet and we’re basically facilitating an online discussion.

Do you guys want to walk onto that side? That field?

Student: Sure.

Elizabeth Babcock: We’re training her to be an ambassador to other members of the public to explain how science works, why it’s important. She’s an embodiment of what we call, really, public engagement. How do you communicate science in a way that people get it? They understand the relevance of it. They’re interested to learn more.

Mariah: The bird that we saw today, brown-headed cowbird, is actually considered a parasite.

Mariah: Not only do we have this opportunity to teach these young students about things that we’re very passionate about and that, hopefully, they’re passionate about, too, we also give them kind of a preview or a picture of what they can be, how they can also be teachers and how they also can convey science in the way that we’re doing.

Mariah: And the males are glossy black with a chocolate brown head. Do you think that’s it? Yeah, I think that that’s it, too.

Mariah: If you’re not able to visualize being a scientist, you’re not gonna do it. And I think that we’re that picture in a way.

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I have always had a special enthusiasm for learning. I remember waking up extra early for school in third grade so that I would not miss a word of our morning homework review. It wasn't until seventh grade that I gained a certain zeal for the sciences. I loved lab days and could not wait to present research projects to the rest of my class.

So when my seventh grade science teacher asked us, "Who wants to participate in the after-school science club?" -- my hand shot up into the sky. I danced in my chair until a flyer for the California Academy of Sciences' Science Action Club landed on my table. Science Action Club is an after-school program that takes place at San Francisco middle schools, aimed toward getting middle schoolers involved with science outside of the classroom. Among other fun activities, youth are given the opportunity to participate in authentic scientific research, just like you saw in the video above.

After the first Science Action Club meeting, I was hooked. The club provided me with hands-on, relevant learning. In school, I often wondered how important all of our work really was. I would sit and ask "How is this going to help me in the real world?" or "When will I actually need to know all of this?" For me, Science Action Club answered those questions.

It is one thing to be told, "Researchers recorded data because it is an important part of their studies" or "Coleopterists study these beetles." And it is another thing to be handed a net and told to go out and collect the beetles yourself. I realized that learning can be more than getting a lecture and answering questions about it. I was shown that you can experience learning outside of the classroom and on your own.

From Club to Career

Two years passed in the Science Action Club when I heard about another youth program at the California Academy of Sciences, called Careers in Science. By this time, I had realized that science was what I wanted to do with my life. That same science teacher I had in the seventh grade gave me an application and said that this was a program that I might be interested in. "Teach, Learn, and Conduct Science" was spelled out in bold at the top of the flyer. I was thrilled.

Careers in Science is an intensive, multi-year program aimed at supporting underrepresented youth to enter the science community. I was told that interns teach on the public floor, go on trips, and get training from actual scientists who work at the Academy. This program sounded too good to be true, so I eagerly applied. And when I got the call that I was accepted, I was squirming in my chair with excitement yet again.

As an intern, I have been given the opportunity to participate in a variety of "project groups" taking an in-depth look into specific STEM fields that interest us. These groups are made up of three to six youths working together on a specific project.

What makes the Academy youth programs special for me is how unrestricted we are. The programs give me a glimpse into the real world and make a career in science seem attainable and a likely possibility for me in the future. We help our peers around the world consider and debate about something that we think is important. That is something that I could not do anywhere else. Some examples of topics that we wrote about include e-cigarettes, sexism in the science community, and nature versus nurture.

Informal Opportunities

In regular school, we are all expected to work in the same way. We are all tested, graded, and evaluated the same. We are given lessons and then told to move on. Some young people thrive in school, while others find it hard to stay interested.

I think that if everyone had the chance to experience informal education, our world would be in better shape. I feel that if everyone got to develop the same passion for learning that I did, through after-school clubs in something they care about, kids would be less likely to drop out. And staying in school gives them a chance to better the world.

For someone like me who grew up in a hardworking, single-parent home in the middle of San Francisco, the thought of becoming a scientist is not something that would ordinarily seem reachable. But now I know it is. For that reason, and many more, I am thankful I raised my hand that day in my seventh grade science class.

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STEM Everywhere: Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math in the Real World
Explore STEM education in settings beyond the classroom walls, and see how opportunities to learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are all around us.

Mariah Jenkins

Education Intern at the California Academy of Sciences
In This Series
Explore STEM education in settings beyond the classroom walls, and see how opportunities to learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are all around us.

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