A Virtual Experiment for an International Outreach Program: Bridging Scientists and Students Around the World

By Rogelio Hernandez-Lopez, Laura Peña-Hernandez, and Bruna Paulsen

The majority of scientists credit a teacher or a hands-on experiment as a big influence for their decision to pursue a career in science, engineering, technology and math (STEM). Early experiences with demonstrations or hands-on activities showing the relevance of STEM in solving real-world problems can make school curriculum come alive and open up possibilities for students about career paths not previously considered. At Harvard, several graduate students, postdocs and faculty are involved with local STEM outreach activities for schools and students of all ages, sharing their knowledge and organizing workshops, lab and classroom visits, science fairs and museum exhibits to connect students and the general public with science.

The reach of these efforts is not only local but also international. One of these programs that has attracted dozens of Harvard graduate students and postdocs was founded in 2014 by a group of grad students from Mexico. The program is called Cubes de Ciencia and every year invites young scientists, graduate students and postdocs, to share their knowledge and stories pursuing careers in science with high school and college students via a series of intensive, week-long, hands-on workshops. The goal of this program is to inspire and empower young students to be the next generation of scientists.

Following a successful first edition of Clubes de Ciencia Mexico, other teams expanded this program to several countries including Peru, Brazil, Colombia, USA, Bolivia, Spain, Paraguay and more recently Ecuador. In 2016, a US-based non profit organization was created under the name of Science Clubs International (SCI) with the goal of supporting the program’s growth internationally and bringing together the teams organizing Clubes de Ciencia. Every year after a selection process, local and international instructors collaborate to deliver hands-on workshops on topics across multiple fields in STEM. In addition to the science-based sessions, instructors talk about grad school applications and opportunities pursuing STEM careers. Altogether more than 1,000 instructors have reached more than 15,000 students in eight different countries.

But how can a program like this continue in times of traveling restrictions, social distancing, and school closures? After brainstorming sessions with the teams organizing Clubes de Ciencia at SCI, we came up with a new twist to adapt the program to an online format.  We applied for and were awarded a Public Engagement grant of the American Society for Cell Biology to organize this online edition that included students and instructors who were scattered across eight countries in multiple time zones. The lessons were delivered for the first time in Spanish, English and Portuguese and were complemented by other topics such as the intersection of Art and Science, the growth and opportunities for Latin American women in science, and the important role of science in society these days. SCI also organized a student fair where student teams had the opportunity to convert the knowledge they learned during their club into a series of short videos and a symposium to showcase the research of young scientists around the world. All this educational content is now available in SCI’s YouTube channel.

And, what were the virtual clubes about? The selection of topics was done following the Clubes de Ciencia model: First, the applications for instructors are opened, and each applicant submits a workshop proposal. Then, complementary proposals get paired, and teams instructors work together on preparing a new original workshop combining their ideas. One of those virtual clubes was taught by Harvard graduate student Brenday Deveney in collaboration with Claudia Carrera from National University of Singapore. Together they discussed how immune cells communicate with each other via extracellular vesicles, and how to use microfluidics tools in research. In another Club, Harvard’s Postdoctoral Fellow Andrez Flores worked with Natalia Montellanos (Universidad de Rosario Argentina) and Miguel Torres (University of Toronto) to teach how to engineer a synthetic cell with genome and protein engineering tools. Another six clubes were delivered by teams of young scientists in topics ranging from artificial intelligence and robotics; drug discovery and computational modeling to neurogenesis; and the biology, chemistry and physics of coral reefs. This international edition reached 184 students, 19 instructors and 12 high school teachers with the support of more than 50 volunteers.

screenshot from a zoom meeting bordered with the flags of the participants countries

Club 06 – Neuroscience and Algorithms

Despite the short-term length of the program, the overall impact of SCI’s virtual edition was very positive for all the participants. As part of the support from the ASCB grant, the team responsible for the evaluation of the program was mentored by Deborah Wasserman, a senior researcher at the COSI Center for Research and Evaluation, to design a comprehensive survey for students, instructors, high-school teachers and volunteers. A summary of the final survey data was presented in the Science Public Engagement Partnerships (SciPEP) Annual Conference this year. In brief, student’s critical thinking and motivation to pursue science increased. This was partially due to the close interaction of role models to aspiring future generations of scientists as highlighted by  students’ testimonials, for example this: “the close interaction with my instructors gave me a better perspective of what it is like to be a scientist”. This interaction was also beneficial for the instructors. One of them described: “[Clubes de Ciencia] is an extraordinary way to approach science, no matter who you are, what you know, if you are an undergraduate or studying high school:  the only thing that matters is that you love science.  It is a place where every future scientist would like to be, because this environment is, just, unique… Clubes de Ciencia is like a family”.

As we are adapting to a new normal, teams organizing the Clubes de Ciencia Program are thinking about how to restart their face-to-face outreach program but also how to take advantage of the virtual editions that were carried out over the past two years. One of the benefits of the online model is reaching a wider audience through the internet and bringing closer students and instructors scattered around the world, building an international community focused on STEM education and increasing opportunities for students of all backgrounds. At SCI we are already planning the next virtual international edition 2022, in which we aim to bring even more students and instructors together in a similar format. In parallel, the team continues to seek new partners in different countries to start and carry the Clubes de Ciencia program. Two new countries are starting to organize their teams to launch the program in the next few months. Given that the organization is  primarily driven by volunteers, supported by grants, and sponsors, and the programs are free for all the participating students, SCI is currently seeking donations that will help cover the costs of logistics, materials and traveling for the online and face-to-face programs.

We are also excited about the long-term challenges: How can we reduce the geographic distance between scientists and students? How can we make science more accessible in multiple countries? How can we support the new generation of scientists to have successful careers? This will require a lot of brainstorming and engagement with the broad community to continue our mission of sparking a social transformation through promoting high-quality STEM and fostering collaborative networks around the world. If you are interested in learning more about the Clubes de Ciencia program or SCI, please reach out!

The authors of this piece, Rogelio Hernandez-Lopez, Laura Peña, and Bruna Paulsen, are all members of the Science Clubs International Core Team, together with Sofia Espinoza and Ana Karen G. Barajas. They greatly thank all volunteers, instructors and teachers that contributed to the online edition of SCI 2021.

More about the Core Team:
Rogelio Hernandez-Lopez obtained his PhD at Harvard and currently he is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California San Francisco, co-director of Science Clubs International, and co-founder of Clubes de Ciencia Mexico.

Bruna Paulsen is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Paola Arlotta (Harvard University), co-director of Science Clubs International, and co-founder of Clubes de Ciencia Brasil.

Sofia Espinoza obtained her PhD at Yale University. She is a co-director of Science Clubs International, and co-founder of Clubes de Ciencia Peru.​

Laura Peña-Hernandez has a master’s degree from the Autonomous University of Mexico in Chemical Engineering Processes. She has 10 years of experience in education and is currently the Operations Manager of Science Clubs International.

Ana Karen G. Barajas
 is a PhD student at The University of Hong Kong and Marketing and Communication consultant of Science Clubs International.

News Types:  Community Stories