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Igniting the Spark

By Kate Silver
min read

Using STEM Programs to Introduce Diverse Audiences to Courses and Careers

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., was a big part of Symone Johnson Barkley’s life when she was a kid. Then, as a volunteer youth exhibit guide, she learned to love sharks, and aspired to work around marine life. Now, as the Aquarium’s co-manager of education programs, her goal is to increase environmental literacy and introduce other young, Black kids to inspiring careers in science, technology, education, and math (STEM), so they, too, can find the job of their dreams.

“It was really important for me to come back to a place where I felt like I could be impactful to kids who are like me, who grew up in the same place I grew up, who look the same way I do, who talk the same way I do, all those things,” said Barkley. “And they could see me as an example of someone who is doing something that they don’t often get a chance to see.”

That’s because Black people, as well as Hispanics and women have been underrepresented, historically, in STEM occupations, according to the United States Census Bureau. Across the country, Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities are working to close that gap. With nearly 200 million annual visitors in the United States, AZA-accredited facilities reach an incredible cross-section of people, and can help spark an interest in biology, zoology, oceanography, engineering, veterinary studies, and so many other areas. We talked with four facilities across the country about how they’re finding ways to connect.

A Place Where They Can See Themselves

Barkley remembers the moment she knew she was where she was supposed to be. While volunteering at the Aquarium, she got to hold a sawfish rostrum and talked to guests about it.

“I explained to them how sawfish use their rostrum to go into a group of fish, and they stun or injure them and eat them. It was exciting,” she said.

She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in marine and environmental science and her master’s degree in natural resources, and then ultimately decided that by working in education, she could have a larger impact by introducing kids to exciting career possibilities. Now, she ensures that STEM is woven into almost every educational program, and those programs draw in diverse audiences.

One of those programs is the Henry Hall Fellowship, a four-year after school work/study program for about 20 students in Baltimore City Public Schools. Students meet with Aquarium staff three times a week (remotely, this year) to discuss the local impact of issues such as conservation and environmental justice, and explore career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math. They choose a project to pursue (this year, it’s food security and how it’s been impacted by COVID-19) and provide community programming on that topic to the local library system (they’re producing an activity booklet that explains what food security is, lists local farmers markets, and explores how to advocate for change in food deserts). They’re also growing their own food at home.

When Barkley talks to students, she loves showing them photos of herself from earlier in her career, when part of her work involved tagging sharks.

“They see a picture of me they’re like that’s really you? How do I get your job? “ she said. “I think that’s really important, because a lot of times Black kids don’t know that this stuff even exists because they don’t see anyone that looks like them. On TV, when you watch those shows, there’s no one who looks like them.”

Just as she sees her past in these students, in her, they can see their future.

A camp counselor and camper look at turtles in an exhibit at the National Aquarium

Photo Credit: © National Aquarium

A Pipeline that Benefits All

As COVID-19 swept through the country this year, altering in-person interactions, a question floated through the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Neb,: a few years from now, could this impact staffing in the future?

The Zoo relies heavily on its STEM programs as a pipeline to careers of all kinds. On its staff, 25 people previously participated in the Zoo Afterschool Program, which serves 350 children from two schools in kindergarten through sixth grade. Three days a week, Zoo staff spends time teaching at the school and two days a week, the students take buses to the Zoo and learn about the different jobs and skills needed for them. It’s still happening this year, but certain popular aspects have been modified; for example, kids can’t shadow animal care staff.

Still, the team is doing its best, showcasing all of the different career possibilities, in hopes of igniting excitement and goals for the future.

“I think zoos and aquariums are instrumental in developing pathways for underserved youth,” said Elizabeth Mulkerrin, Ed.D., who is vice president of education.

“We offer so many different career paths. We have our science pathway that we can introduce students with their love of animals; but we also have engineering which brings in math and technology when it comes to us constructing or building new exhibits. And we also have accounting, food services, and graphic artists—there’s a whole array of professions.”

It’s tough to predict the ripple effects the pandemic will have. For now, Mulkerrin and her team will keep encouraging students, everywhere, to fall in love with science. And when and if those former students go on to pursue job at the Zoo, the more diversity they bring, the better. “I think it’s important to have all different voices at the table,” said Mulkerrin.

Partnering for Success

In Tampa, Fla., nearly 50 girls participate in a remarkable annual opportunity: a sleepover weekend called Mission Tampa Bay Girls Underwater Robot Camp. The students, who range in age from 10 to 17, are selected from area public schools and they build and launch remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs).

Two girls working on building a robot

Although it was cancelled this year because of COVID-19, the weekend, which is made possible by a partnership among Florida Aquarium, National Geographic, the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), the Tampa Bay STEM Network, Hillsborough County Schools, and others, begins at the robotics lab at MOSI to build the vehicles, which are a feat of engineering, said Debbi Stone, who is vice president of learning with The Florida Aquarium. There’s no kit involved—rather, the building happens from scratch, using a number of materials and tools. “Kids learn how to solder, and they learn how to wire the cameras,” said Stone.

The girls then spend the nights at the Aquarium, where they test the vehicles in exhibits and then hop on the Aquarium’s catamaran to put them to work them in Tampa Bay. Erica Bergman, who is a National Geographic Explorer and manned submersible pilot, serves as their guide through the experience, and throughout the weekend, past participants serve as mentors.

Stone considers it one of the most successful programs that the Aquarium offers, because the kids learn so much about so many different disciplines, and they get to work with a woman in the field, as well as female mentors.

“If they don’t see scientists or architects or engineers that look like them, they’re either subconsciously or directly getting the message that that’s not the career for them,” said Stone. “So the more we can expose underrepresented audiences to mentors and opportunities, the more likely it is that they’re going to continue down that path, if they choose.”

Partnerships are critical to this program, said Stone, and she encourages other facilities to seek out STEM collaborations. A STEM Ecosystem, which is a collaborative network established in communities across the country, is a great place to start.

“Anyone looking to engage in the STEM careers/underrepresented audiences space should absolutely see if there is already a STEM Ecosystem in their region. We are part of the Tampa Bay STEM Network, and it has been invaluable in building our programming and partnership portfolio,” said Stone.

A Rich Tapestry of Voices

Education influences everything at Birch Aquarium at Scripps in San Diego, Calif. As part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is part of the University of California San Diego (UCSD), the facility doubles as an oceanographic museum and research showcase—and fertile ground for kids to fall in love with STEM education and career opportunities.

Since 2014, the Aquarium has hosted an annual Exploring Ocean STEM Careers Night that draws up to 200 middle and high school students to meet with graduate students and professionals stationed throughout the Aquarium (this year’s was cancelled because of COVID-19). At one table, they may be able to chat with scientists from UCSD or Scripps Oceanography, and at another table they can learn the career path of associate curators, collection managers, and veterinarians from Birch Aquarium.

“The jobs are just so cool,” said Caitlin Scully, a marketing specialist with Birch Aquarium. “For a lot of people, the response is, huh, I never even thought about being an oceanographer who developed an underwater microscope to study plankton or coral in situ in coral reefs. Even as an adult you have no idea that some of these careers exist, so it’s pretty neat.”

To encourage a broad and diverse audience, the Aquarium markets it in local libraries, community centers, and local public schools, and offers scholarships so it’s accessible to all (otherwise the event is $10 for members and $12 for the public).

“We’re working really hard to make connections with under-represented audiences,” said Cari Paulenich, who is an education specialist at Birch Aquarium.

The graduate students and professionals in attendance represent diverse backgrounds, as well—which is a priority of the Aquarium.

“Everybody should get to enjoy their natural worlds and the oceans,” said Paulenich. “To have everyone participate in STEM fields creates a much richer experience. You get much better research, you get better engineering and different ideas and different ways of looking at things when you’re allowing a diverse set of voices to participate.”

Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.

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