Sharing Science

Girl Scout Brownies participate in an outreach program at the School of Science.

Girl Scout Brownies participate in an outreach program at the School of Science.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Everyone wins when education goes beyond campus

When a college or university talks about outreach, it means educating beyond its campus and current students. At Penn State Behrend, that includes everything from public lectures to STEM programming for scout troops to workshops for teachers to participating in Science Day at the local children’s museum.

For college student volunteers, it’s a valuable out-of-class learning experience.

“Students get so much out of teaching others,” said Tracy Halmi, senior lecturer in chemistry at Penn State Behrend. “When our students are able to take what they know and reiterate it and teach it in laymen’s terms to others, it really helps to cement what they are learning here. We know they really ‘get it’ when they can explain it to a ten-year-old.”

“Our students benefit from sharing their expertise and enthusiasm for science, the outreach participants benefit from the knowledge shared and introduction to potential careers in science, and the college benefits from the visibility outreach brings,” Kociolek said.

Recognizing the value of outreach, Kociolek recently appointed Halmi the outreach coordinator for the School of Science. “Having a point person will help make programs more accessible and cohesive,” Halmi said.

In most cases, faculty members provide the educational framework for outreach efforts, then encourage their students to volunteer to lead an activity or otherwise assist with the program. Many do.

Drew Cobert, a senior Biology major, recently took part in “What Matters? Science,” an outreach event in which he helped teach more than 100 Wattsburg Elementary School fifth-graders about different states of matter. He said the experience was both rewarding and educational.

“Some of the students asked questions about fundamental concepts that we sometimes overlook, which, in turn, solidifies a stronger foundation of scientific understanding in all of us,” said Cobert, who volunteers in several outreach efforts through the School of Science.

Junior Chemistry major Thalia Soto Torres has volunteered for several outreach programs, but said her favorite is an annual one-day event at Erie’s Millcreek Mall where she and other science majors present a dozen experiments to the public in celebration of National Chemistry Week.

“It’s so much fun to see the kids smile and have fun while they are learning about science,” she said. “I’m very passionate about sharing my knowledge with others, and I love teaching younger people what chemistry and the other sciences are about.”

Outreach is a form of engaged scholarship, which is a Penn State initiative to provide and encourage out-of-class academic experiences that complement students’ coursework.

“As scientists, we have an obligation to educate the public about science,” Kociolek said, “and, as a land-grant University, we also have outreach as part of our mission. In having our students participate, we are training the next generation of scientific stewards.”

Halmi widens the scope further: “When students are engaged outside of class, they learn how to mentor and be role models for others. Also, it’s nice for them to give back and think beyond themselves. Service is important in all aspects of life.”

Cobert, who plans to be a neurologist, considers it time well spent.

“It’s incredibly fulfilling to have an opportunity to ignite a child’s imagination and curiosity and maybe inspire a new generation of scientists,” he said.