Sharing our passion for science with high school students

By Dr. James T. Hazzard and Andrew Hausrath, University of Arizona

Due to significant generational differences, a major challenge for us older folks at the university and college level is effectively sharing our passion for science and how to prepare high school students for the college experience.  At the University of Arizona, we have developed the Visiting Scholars Program (VSP) in an attempt to accomplish both of these goals. VSP sends undergraduates with research experience to Tucson area high school classrooms. Many of these undergraduates have overcome significant hurdles prior to or during their academic career. The impetus for VSP arose from understanding that advice given by faculty members (i.e. an older person) would not be received as enthusiastically as the same message delivered by an undergraduate who is much closer in age to the high school students. In 2011 and 2012, we had a small number of undergraduate participants in VSP. The number has since grown to twelve undergraduate students enrolled in a one-credit course (that “reimburses” them for their considerable effort) during the fall 2015 semester.

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Visiting Scholars Program

Early in the development of VSP, we loosely modeled our program after the University of Missouri “Science and Me” program developed by Dr. Hanna Alexander. While “Science and Me” focuses on the adult community, our focus is on high school students. VSP presentations are developed around opportunities to do research at our university and suggestions on how high school students can succeed at the university level when faced with the challenge of transitioning from high school to college.

The VSP semester begins with a presentation by a previous VSP participant in order to give the current students a good idea about the nature of the talks. We then invite two experts from our Office of Instruction and Assessment and the Biosciences Toastmasters to provide their guidance on effective public speaking practices. Next the undergraduates come up with a rough outline of what they will say when they visit the high school classes, followed by more formal practice presentations in which their talks are evaluated by their peers and the faculty involved with the project. During this time, the faculty advisers have made initial contact with a number of high school teachers in charge of the classes our students will visit. Participants subsequently set up their own visitation schedules.

We try to focus on advanced placement and honors biology, biotech, chemistry, and physics courses, though sometimes we are also able to accommodate requests to present to general classes in these disciplines.  One of the challenges for the undergraduates is to keep the technical side of their presentation at an understandable level for the high school students. This often means minimizing the use of acronyms and jargon, which can become incomprehensible gibberish when talking to the lay public. For all undergraduates, especially those without extensive research experience, we ask them to address unique challenges they faced when they first arrived at the university.  Some of the more common examples are having freshman classes with over 200 students, falling behind in their studies due to poor time management, and the often ungrounded fear of attending faculty office hours because they suspect they may be judged unfavorably. Our undergraduates stress to the high school students that it is important to develop relationships with faculty, rather than just being an anonymous member of a large class.

We have found that high school students are very willing to pose questions to undergraduates who are closer in age, and will open up about their own concerns to these speakers. Questions from the high schoolers have included: How expensive is the university? How do you get scholarships and other forms of financial aid? What do colleges look for in your applications? How does one find out about the opportunities offered by a university or college?  How much time is spent studying?  Do you even have social lives? What about parties?  As one of our Visiting Scholar participants pointed out, it is necessary to acknowledge that this is a normal question. The enticement of having fun in college is a reality, but it is more important to find a healthy balance in the college lifestyle.

Besides getting some instruction on how to become a better public speaker, what do participants in Visiting Scholars get from the program?  Adrian Franco, a senior in Physiology said: “My commitment to become a Visiting Scholar was the personal goal to overcome my fear of public speaking while reaching out to under-served high schools within the Tucson community… focusing on my personal story as a first generation Hispanic student, the academic challenges I faced, and the educational opportunities that come along with higher education, realizing that perceived and existing societal barriers may influence a child’s K-12 way of looking at education.”

Priscilla Rivera, a senior in Biological Anthropology stated: “On the first day of the Visiting Scholars class, I knew the objective but not how relevant and inspiring my story would be. I was self-conscious because I knew the failures I had endured and did not want others to think less of me. Surprisingly this class helped me find the beauty in my hardships, and how to embrace the valuable lessons learned during my journey in college.  The interest in the students’ eyes during the presentations has definitely inspired me to want to continue giving back to the community in the future.”

More information about Visiting Scholars can be obtained here.

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