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STEM Education: From Brown to East Providence

John Santiago, a doctoral candidate in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry (MCB), is the spark behind a program with the Boys and Girls Club of East Providence to bring STEM education to local grade school students. 

Santiago’s successful Junior Researcher’s program is in its third year. Each week Brown doctoral students volunteer their time at Agnes B. Hennessey School in East Providence to give a science lesson to 20 or more elementary students in an after school program. They also visit Camp Crosby in Bristol during the summer.

The program is divided into four 10-week blocks each year. Graduate students volunteer their time and funds. They create their own lesson plans, provide supplies, and pay for an initial background check required of all volunteers by the Boys and Girls Club.  

When Santiago first started this project, he was blown away by the support he received from the graduate community and his department. He has had between 30-50 students volunteer over the past 3 years to be a part of this program. 

The project first came together for Santiago, when, after returning from a SACNAS conference (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science), he was considering how students of color often feel like strangers in the STEM fields. He wanted a way to prevent younger students from feeling this way and to be a role model for them. He also wanted his son, who was in first grade at the time, to see role models in science.

Santiago tells a story about how the elementary students, when initially asked to draw a picture of a scientist, often drew an old, white man (e.g. Albert Einstein). When he asks students now, they draw people of all colors and genders. Brown graduate students have become relatable role models for the elementary age children. “It’s not just about teaching them science, but about opening doors for them,” says Santiago.

Others involved in the program feel similarly. Shawn Williams, another PhD student in the MCB program says, “I wanted to volunteer because I think it’s important to get the younger generation interested in careers in science. My hope is that seeing students from diverse backgrounds will change their perception of who a scientist is, and allow them see that becoming a scientist or any other career path in STEM is an achievable goal.”  

Lessons are often seasonal. Students created a smoke machine with glow in the dark slime for Halloween and will do a lesson on crystallization this winter. Next spring they will create origami microscopes.

The most popular lessons are always messy says Santiago. He shared how cheers erupted from students during a lesson on stoichiometry (the calculation of relative quantities of reactants and products in chemical reactions), which allowed them to use baking soda, vinegar and a few other ingredients to make the combination explode.

“I think these kids inspire us more than we do them. Watching them learn and piece things together reminds me of why I became interested in science in the first place. These kids remind me about why science is so fun and exciting,” says Williams.

The program often provides the grade schoolers with the materials for take-home experiments that they can do with their parents, in the hopes the parents will also support their son or daughter going into a STEM field. 

Each year, with increased organization and participation, Santiago is able to delegate more of the program planning. He will graduate soon and wants to make sure this program continues past his time at Brown.

Originally , Santiago thought that after Brown he would look for a position in industry, but with the experience of the Junior Researcher’s program he has found his passion in teaching and in being involved in the community. He emphasizes how supportive his advisors have been about his studies and his community volunteer work.

“The active promotion of underrepresented groups in science by the MCB program has had a huge impact on me personally, and has inspired me to be the change I want to see in the world,” says Santiago.