Celebrating Science Outside the Lab
From teaching a class on anything to mentoring a summer student project
The cult of contagious scientific curiosity is something I’ve totally loved about MIT ever since I’ve stepped on campus as a starry-eyed prospective undergrad during Campus Preview Weekend (CPW). My CPW host welcomed me into her living space (a co-ed co-op living group called ‘pika’) and impromptu taught me about crystal lattices on the whiteboards in the basement of the quirky three-story house. After that, I had a small tour through a materials lab, where a senior professor walked me through the details of some of the electrochemistry measurements that were going on. I knew that both had better things to do than teaching a prospective undergrad about some cool science that’s probably still above her head… But something about their enthusiasm was so contagious — it was like they enjoyed sharing this knowledge. It wasn’t a chore, or an expectation, and it was totally free of any pedantry. I was treated like an equal mind, and I was left with a wide open door into the new topics I was introduced to in just minutes.
Now, as a graduate student and research assistant with some similar responsibilities, I find myself thinking back to the selflessness of my teachers in those microscopic science encounters. I realize that, on one hand, I can keep to myself, to my lab, to my office and environment, working solely on the tasks at hand. But, on the other hand, science is like a tub of ice cream. You might feel good eating it by yourself. But it tastes even better if you share it with others. Throughout my six years at MIT, I’ve been quite impressed with the multitude of existing outlets for sharing science. If you’re a graduate student with some time and some enthusiasm you’re itching to share with curious young minds, here are a few starting points…
1. ESP Splash! Probably the greatest invention since sliced bread, and it’s not even an exaggeration. Splash! is a weekend of unlimited (and I mean unlimited!) classes for high school students, taught almost exclusively by MIT undergraduate and graduate students. We have the option of teaching absolutely any subject we are crazy about – anything from black holes to impressionist art is fair game. In the past, I’ve personally taught classes on “being a local” in Paris, intro to chaos and nonlinear dynamics, modern physics experiments, stand-up improvisation, and integration. I promise, before you teach Splash!, you’ve never really seen such enthusiastic and unedited reactions to things you might’ve thought were only marginally cool. In addition to Splash, you have the option for teaching Spark!, a weekend of classes for middle school students, HSSP, a summer-long program for high school students, and more.
2. MIT Museum Outreach. Back when I was the starry eyed high school student, something that attracted me about MIT and the city of Cambridge was the abundance of science outside of classes. Exciting science. At the MIT Museum, you will always find a curious exhibition or an upcoming interactive talk with an expert on the future of artificial intelligence, holography, “quantum weirdness”, strobe photography— and more. If you’re interested in being up to date on possible outreach opportunities in the museum-– such as “Mathternoon” math game event for kids and adults alike, or being part of an “Ask a Scientist” interactive question session—look into the opportunities available on the MIT Museum and Science On the Street websites. MIT Museum also hosts the “Science on Saturday” series with multiple STEM departments at MIT, and is always looking for grad student volunteers! It’s a morning of interactive stage presentations and hands-on demos, taking place in Kresge Auditorium and frequented by hundreds of kids and their parents. So if you’ve ever wanted to feed some inquisitive minds with liquid nitrogen ice cream, or explain to someone how your favorite piece of technology works with a fun take-home demo, now’s your chance.
3. MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). Unlike the UROP program, MSRP is a summer research program for students from other universities, with a focus of involving more students from low socio-economic background or first generation college students in cutting-edge research. If you’d like to give a shot at fast-paced mentoring in your own field, while perhaps having a chance to inspire an undergraduate’s outlook towards their academic career, this is a wonderful opportunity to do both. Just make sure your PI is on board!
4. Communicating Science@MIT (ComMIT). This club is a new kid on the block, but is picking up momentum fast. Do you wish you could give flawless two-minute elevator speeches on what you do to anyone from your five-year-old sibling to your grandma? Are you interested in reaching out to children around the area to inspire them to study STEM? Check out the upcoming events of ComMIT, a club dedicated to science communication at MIT, and specifically organizing a multitude of events for graduate students such as “How to give a TED talk”, science trivia in local bars, and workshops on how to use social media to talk about science. Because it is run mostly by graduate students and even some locally based science writers, it’s a great opportunity to get involved as well as learn from both your peers and professionals in the field.
This list is curated but not exhaustive—there are many more opportunities to give back science to the public, or to inspire younger scientists, through institute activities and individual department programs. I find it easy to receive an email about an outreach event and sigh, “oh, I have no time!”, while studying for a class or analyzing a data set. But there is a reason I find myself doing those activities. It is in a large part due to a great mentor (or two) with a fun personality who showed me — and possibly you too — that science or maths wasn’t just facts and numbers, but a kind of game, mystery, and exciting challenge. Why not be challenged to be that person for someone else — even if only for one day?
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