Every fall, hundreds of students begin their high school career as 9th graders at Mather High School in Chicago. Mather offers numerous programs and other resources are made available for freshmen to successfully navigate the high school transition and stay on track for graduation.
For a subset of those freshmen, these resources also include Science Explorers, a school-day mentoring and academic support program. Three Science in Society staff members - STEM Fellows – are based full-time at the high school during the academic year. Recent college graduates with STEM degrees, Fellows help students reinforce their biology learning and develop good habits in studying and asking questions, and they serve as an additional resource in biology classrooms.
We asked this year’s Fellows – Christopher Goc, Allison Grecco and Varun Mehta – to share their perspectives on the program and the impact they’re having on Chicago youth. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.
What sparked your interest in working in education?
Chris: My mom is a lifelong teacher, and the passion she brings to her job has always impressed me. After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I realized my whole life up to that point had been spent in education. I spent the last 17 years learning and I was looking for a way to share all of that learning.
Alli: I was raised by my family from a young age to value education, and to always strive towards deeper learning about and questioning of the world around me. When I was an undergraduate Biology major, I worked in population ecology research, which provided context for my belief in questioning and learning. But it wasn’t until I started working as a teaching assistant in undergraduate biology labs and as a tutor in an after-school program for elementary students that I realized the effect I can have on others’ learning and growth. The most meaningful experiences that I have had in my life have been filled with guiding young people to realize their own power and intellect and contributing to the life and journey of others, and my interest in working in education stems from there.
What is the best part of your day as a STEM Education Fellow?
Varun: Where I went to high school, there were few people with the same cultural and ethnic background as me, and it has been fun to see that isn’t the case at our CPS partner schools. The schools we work in lie on the intersection of many walks of life and getting the chance to interact with that wealth of experience is a privilege. In particular, I love teaching in the ESL Biology classes, where I might alternate between Hindi, Gujarati, Spanish, and English in one period! (yes, the languages do get jumbled up in my head, and yes, I’ve spoken to the wrong students in the wrong languages before).
Chris: My favorite parts of the days are always unscripted. Whether it's a question from a student I had never expected or a life moment they decide to share with me, the students are constantly surprising me.
What has surprised you during this experience?
Varun: I think society as a whole (myself included) tends to assume that young people who don’t do well in school are simply shortsighted and take their opportunities for granted. However, I have found many of the students I work with to be motivated and self-driven beyond my expectations. Whether it be giving up a lunch period to come to tutoring or asking insightful questions in class that I wouldn’t even expect from an adult, these students definitely want to succeed. All they need is a push in the right direction.
What have you learned about yourself during your time as a Fellow?
Chris: I am way nerdier than I thought I was before working as a Fellow. I can't believe how incredibly excited I get when a student is impressed by some new thing they've learned, and I always find myself genuinely interested in the material.
Alli: I have learned to be more empathetic and patient. I have strengthened my belief that all children unequivocally deserve the right access to an equitable and high quality education and have reaffirmed my belief in science literacy as one means toward social justice. Because of this experience, I have realized that what I value most is lifelong learning and that I am called to a life in science education. Since first becoming a Fellow, I have begun work towards a MS in Education in order to become a high school science teacher.
What has been your biggest challenge in this role? How have you been able to work through or overcome that challenge?
Varun: In the past, I have been a peer teacher and a peer mentor in CPS, but I’ve never had youth address me as a professional adult. Apart from adjusting to not being called by my first name (I still forget to respond to “Mr. M” sometimes!), it’s been a challenge to find a happy medium between my naturally casual style of talking to students and the inherent responsibility of being an authority figure in school. Although I struggled initially, I have been able to balance the two approaches, and I feel this has increased my ability to connect with people in general.
What impact(s) do you hope to have on your students?
Varun: I want them to end this important transition year with an understanding of why learning is important. We know that a lot of the information they learn in ninth grade will ultimately be forgotten, retaught or lie unused as they pursue their goals in high school and beyond. But I want them to understand that doing well in school and their classes is training their minds to think critically. School is where they can build a foundation to make an impact in society, so if we can get students to understand that, I would consider that a win.
Alli: My hope is that I can show students that they matter, that they are valuable, and that they have immense power to make the world a better place. I hope to inspire curiosity and critical thinking that will last a lifetime. I know fully that not every student will choose a career in science, and in fact, I imagine that most will not. I do hope, however, that each of my students walks away with a sense of wonder for the world around them, and a knowledge that what they choose to do and who they choose to be will impact the world.
The first class of Science Explorers will be graduating high school this year. What advice would you give them?
Chris: It is important to care about things. Sometimes in high school there is an attitude that nothing matters, but that is not the case in the real world. Leaving high school, I didn't have a really strong passion for anything. But if you practice caring about the things in your life, you will have no problem caring about your passion when you find it.
Alli: Entering adulthood comes with all sorts of expectations about what we think the future should hold for us and those around us. It is easy to get so caught up in worrying about how we think things should be that we forget to take a moment to be grateful for how things are in the here and now. There will be challenging times ahead but remember that for every end there is another beginning. Mistakes and disappointment are inevitable, but it is how we choose to move forward that shapes who we are and who we will become. Learn the hard lessons, while remaining gentle and patient with yourself along the way. Continually keep an open heart and mind for what brings you joy and follow that which brings you light.
Varun: After high school, people start to follow their own paths. It’s up to you which path you choose but remember that any path worth following will likely be difficult, and it is possible that you’ll fail a lot. Your tenacity and persistence in responding to the challenges in your path will define who you are as a person. I believe you can succeed; you just need to believe too.
How has working directly with high school teachers changed your thinking about (or approach to) science education?
Alli: There is a saying that I have heard in my education classes that says, "no significant learning can occur without significant relationship." The teachers I work with embody this every day, that building strong relationships with students built on respect and trust is the foundation for education. Working with science teachers in a high school has also shown me the importance of making science accessible and relatable. When kids see themselves in the science they’re engaging with, they have a sense of ownership in the learning community, and they realize the interconnectedness of nature. I now realize that my own curiosity was sparked when teachers showed me how science is intertwined with my lived experiences. The teachers I work with do the same, and I see the same sparks in students that initially drove me to care about science as a kid and now.
Chris: Science as a whole is a big and complex topic. Working with the high school science teachers has made me realize that there is so much more to learn than can be fit into a single year. So how do we address the gaps in students’ understanding of the natural world within such limited time? I believe we need to instill interest and wonder in them, while also teaching them how to be literate in a difficult field. If they have the skills to find their own information, they will leave the school being lifelong scientists, no matter their careers.