• Claire N. Saunders

How I Became an Advocate for STEM Education

#stem #girlsinstem #womeninstem #outreach #science #education #stemeducation #teaching #learning #grief #loss #death #myjourney

Growing up, I was always a huge fan of Star Trek: The Original Series. Despite the fact that the show ended roughly 25 years before I was born, it helped shape me as a scientist. For me, there was no better scientist than Mister Spock. Throughout my schooling, I approached science with the cold objectivity that only a green-blooded alien could achieve. While many of these qualities made me a good scientist, I struggled to strike a balance professionally.

My best friend in college was a physics and mathematics major like myself. However, we always took radically different paths. She dreamed of being a high school physics teacher. I, on the other hand, wanted to focus solely on research and did not see any gain in teaching and mentoring students. As my education progressed and my friend took me to more outreach events, I slowly started to see the importance of scientific outreach but still insisted that I would have more time for these activities later in my scientific career.

This all changed my first year in graduate school at Caltech, when I received the Facebook message that my best friend had been found dead in her apartment. Suddenly at the age of 22, I found myself angry, best-friendless, and questioning everything I thought I wanted or needed in my life.

I went to her funeral. It was all such a blur. Amidst the chaos, the thing that really caught my eye was the trifold containing all the letters her students had written for her. It was her first teaching assignment, so I recognized the student's names from all of her classroom stories. The letters were innocent. Some commented on how they were going to miss her sarcastic and dry sense of humor in the classroom. Others remarked on her understanding nature, how she never made them feel stupid for asking basic questions. That is when it hit me. While a scientist is often remembered for the revolutionary papers they write or the new fields they create, more often than not their legacy lives on in the students they mentor.

This lesson took awhile to sink in for me. I wish I could say I responded to my friend's death by immediately incorporating more science education and mentoring into my life, but it wasn't that easy for me. In fact, I spent a long time struggling to put the shattered pieces of my life back into something recognizable.

I started by volunteering tutoring high school students who were struggling in math and science. Seeing them understand a new scientific concept for the first time was truly cathartic. They helped remind me of the very moments I fell in love with science. While tutoring these kids really helped, it didn't fix me.

After a few months of tutoring, I found a local Girls Who Code (GWC) Chapter that was looking for an instructor. On a whim, I sent the organizer an email. A week later, I was standing in front of a group of high school girls teaching them about basic computer science concepts. I was nervous, awkward, and spoke way too quickly. Most importantly, for the first time since my friend's death I had some sense of purpose. It made me laugh and cry realizing that I had finally understood the lesson my friend was subtly trying to teach me. In many ways, I was her final student.

About 6 months after volunteering with the GWC club, people starting bringing me to their events to lead coding lessons and talk to their students about my journey in STEM. I learned that the questions from students about dating and having a life were just as important as the questions on conducting research and pursuing a PhD. Sometimes, what I said didn't even matter. Girls would swarm me and express how happy they were to discover that a scientist could be girly and fashionable.

Then I took it one step further. I started my own Girls Who Code Club at Caltech. The students (we accepted students regardless of gender) called me Ms. Claire and reminded me on a weekly basis how old I was (Who knew 24 years old was ancient?). Like with the tutoring and the other local Girls Who Code Chapter and all of the other events I was now doing, it didn't fix me. However, it did help me remember why I fell in love with STEM as a kid.

I could go into a whole argument on why scientists have an obligation to not only discover new ideas and concepts but to find a way to effectively communicate their discoveries and help create a scientifically literate public, but I'm not going to go down that rabbit hole. I'm going to keep it personal. I wouldn't be the scientist I am today without all of the outreach programs targeting girls. I owe it to the next generation of girls. More accurately, I owe it to the next generation of scientists to educate and inspire. They make me a better scientist everyday by helping me look at the world through the curious eyes of a child.

Long story short, Spock never would have been the human (Yes, human) or scientist he was without the very emotional influence of Captain Kirk. Thank you Cheyenne for being my Kirk.


© 2020 by Claire N. Saunders.