George Lucas Educational Foundation

STEM Penpals: Connecting Students with Scientists


I recently participated in two outreach programs designed for middle school science classes. The idea is to connect students with real scientists across the country through hand-written letters, facilitated by their teachers. Each student is matched with a junior scientist (graduate student or postdoc), with whom they communicate their interests and any questions they may have about their profession. The scientists respond to their inquiries and write about how they about got into science. The thought is that this more personal view of science can expose students to potential career paths they were not previously aware of and humanize the scientists they are writing to.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

I would like to share my experience with this pen pal program and solicit feedback from educators on what value they see here and how to make programs like these more effective.

Letters to a Pre-Scientist

Letters to a Pre-Scientist (LPS) is a science penpal program that started in 2010 as a collaboration between 6th grade science teacher in rural North Carolina and a chemistry graduate student at UC Berkeley. Since then, they have slowly grown and are now working with roughly 8 schools every academic year. In order to see students from diverse backgrounds succeed in their science education, LPS works primarily with schools that have a high-proportion of students from low-income families.

Several of my colleagues and I signed up and waited to be assigned to a penpal. After three months, I got notice of an opportunity: a fifth grader in southern California interested in “chemicals.” It wasn’t my field of expertise, but I did my best to connect it to stellar processes or planet atmospheres. It quickly became apparent that his real interest was blowing stuff up, but astronomy has plenty of that too.

LPS has a generally good set of guidelines for the scientists when writing to their penpal. In our five exchanges, we discussed an assortment of topics ranging from astronomy to turtles to basketball.

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience. As far as positives (+) and negatives (-) go:

  • (+) I can see this program giving students a way to improve their reading and writing skills on a topic of personal interest. It certainly reintroduced me to handwriting.
  • (+) As a nationwide program, it also helps students broaden their understanding geography and culture.
  • (+) Academic outreach events often involve lots of preparation and imminent deadlines. But I could do LPS on my own time and it had a low time-commitment, e.g., ~1 letter every two months.
  • (-) LPS is vastly oversubscribed with scientist signups. Many of my colleagues are still waiting in the queue for a match.
  • (-) I had a couple logistical hiccups in coordinating letters (e.g., emails to wrong people, not getting deadline reminders).

It’s important to note that LPS as an organization isn’t a full-time gig. The LPS team consists of teachers, postdocs, and graduate students who volunteer their free time to make this happen. With that in mind, I can easily forgive the small bumps I encountered.

In fact, I was inspired to do something similar. It had to be manageable for one person to organize, which meant going small and local. The scope would be a single class of students communicating with a single university. But I could see some advantages in doing it this way: it could ease the facilitation of letter exchanges and we could potentially write more frequently to one another. That was my vision for this pilot program.

A locally organized penpal program with a Chicago public school

The first thing I needed were students and scientists. Fortunately, my department does regular outreach events with Chicago area schools and our outreach coordinator got me in touch with a few teachers. For this run, I had a class of 30 students and 22 scientists participating.

To create matches based on interest, I set up a short Google Form with a list of science topics that students could choose from. I wrote some code to parse the survey data and match everyone based on a set of conditions that I imposed. For instance, one criterion was that a scientist could not have more than 2 penpals. In the end, every student got matched to someone with at least one of their science interests.

The students wrote the first letter and the scientists wrote back. Exchanges happened pretty rapidly, roughly one letter every 1.5 weeks. We got four exchanges in before the school year ended. I thought it was a pretty successful and efficient pilot run, with a bittersweet conclusion: a few students wanted to maintain contact with their scientist penpal over the summer but we couldn’t make that happen logistically.

If you’re interested in participating, you can find out more here. You also might be able to organize something with a local university or laboratory. My experience from the academic side is that many junior scientists from a variety of fields would be eager to participate in something like this.

I’d also like to hear from educators what they think about these programs. How interested would you be in adopting this program for your class? What hurdles would you have to overcome to make it happen? Are there other areas where you could see improvement?

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.