A common exercise prior to scientific lectures or public outreach events is to ask the audience:
Imagine a scientist in your mind. Picture how they look, what they are wearing, how they speak, what they are saying or doing.
Before reading on, try doing this exercise yourself. Who did you imagine?
A common response to this prompt is a white, relatively old man with somewhat misbehaving hair, wearing a lab coat or blazer, working at a lab bench with bubbling liquids or writing an equation on a chalkboard. In reality, scientists do not all look like Albert Einstein, nor do we all wear lab coats, work with bubbling liquids, or derive complicated physics concepts on chalkboards.
Unfortunately, my field of astronomy is not keeping pace with the changing demographics of the United States on multiple fronts. Additionally, only about half of scientists participate in public outreach1—sharing the discoveries at the core of our research, engaging the public to actively participate in the scientific process, and especially encouraging students from a wider array of backgrounds to learn about science. These two issues—a lack of diversity, and a lack of good public engagement—present a real barrier: to tackle the greatest questions that scientists ask, the field demands a diversity of ideas, projects, and approaches for solving problems, as well as the support of the public.
So what can we do about these two core problems?
At the Carnegie Observatories, we are looking to the future. In 2016, staff astronomer Gwen Rudie overhauled our summer undergraduate research program to include a strong emphasis on teaching the professional skills required to be a successful scientist beyond what’s typically conveyed in the classroom. During the 10-week program, all of the young scientists learn how to effectively communicate their research, as well how as to work collaboratively. The Carnegie internship strives to build each students’ “scientist identity,’’ meaning the students understand science content, have the skills necessary to perform relevant scientific tasks and, importantly, are recognized by themselves and others as “science people.”
To help tackle the lack of diversity in astronomy and in science in general, and to improve public engagement well as our local community relationships in Southern California, in 2017 we started a new, standout partnership with California Polytechnic State University at Pomona. Cal Poly hosts one of the country's longest-running Upward Bound Math & Science programs, a federally funded initiative that provides year-round assistance to high school students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM, who are either economically disadvantaged, the first in their family to attend college, or both. The power of Upward Bound is demonstrated in their six-year tracking of students, who show remarkable year-to-year progress, excelling in their high school educations, and continuing on to postsecondary schooling.
I wanted to connect these two groups of aspiring scientists—the Carnegie undergraduate researchers, who hail from a variety of institutions and are actively pursuing astronomical research, and the Upward Bound high school students, who are exploring the many avenues of science and whether they might want to pursue science themselves in college.
In this second year of the Upward Bound-Carnegie partnership, we organized three events to promote interactions and show what it’s like to do astronomy. This partnership serves the dual purpose of giving the high school students diverse examples of scientists-in-training, people who are not far removed from themselves, and of giving our undergraduate interns experience being recognized by others as “science people."
Our first event was a visit from Upward Bound sophomores and juniors to our Carnegie campus in Pasadena. During their trip, the high school students participated in two educational activities about how astronomical instruments work and attended a panel organized by the undergraduates about college as a STEM major. Erin Flowers, a visiting graduate student from Princeton, who also participated in much of the summer programming, found working and talking with the high school students very rewarding. “I had the privilege of giving advice to students who were interested in studying a STEM topic in college and maybe pursuing it as a career, but they didn’t have a lot of information about how to go about that,” she said. “They were blown away, though, at the idea that they could have a career in their passion! Being able to inspire these students--all of them from under-represented groups like myself--is extremely rewarding.”
Our second event was a visit to our historic Mount Wilson Observatory with the Carnegie undergraduate interns and Upward Bound seniors. This was a special trip, which we hope will become a much-anticipated reward for seniors who stick with the program for all four years of high school. The students were treated to a tour of both the 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes, dinner, and then some nighttime observing through the telescopes that were used to make some of the greatest discoveries in the history of astronomy. Throughout the entire event, the undergraduate and high school students carried on continuing conversations on a variety of topics, including what college is really like and what classes are the best to take.
Our third and final event was a star party on the campus of Cal Poly Pomona, serving the entire Upward Bound community of over 200 students! We brought two portable telescopes from Carnegie, but the event was really a success due to special help from Chelsea Adelman, one of our summer interns. She organized the transport of four additional telescopes from her home institution of Mt. San Antonio College, helped train the other interns, and ran all of the telescopes. All Upward Bound students got to look at Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon; many of them had never looked through a telescope before. Chelsea said of the experience: “it's important for scientists to interact with the community, because it makes science less intimidating, and the star party was a time that brought scientists and the Upward Bound students together. We also shared our passion for astronomy and talked about the diverse paths that led us to different opportunities—like an internship at Carnegie—all of which hopefully encouraged the high school students to continue to pursue their dreams.”
The Upward Bound-Carnegie partnership takes a real step forward in addressing the lack of diversity in astronomy and STEM overall by drawing in populations of students who may not have previously felt welcome, nor have known about the astronomical community and available career paths. The partnership emphasizes Carnegie’s commitment to teaching scientists-in-training and demonstrates that public engagement is fun, rewarding, and important. “The partnership allows us to reach a great group of high school students and share with them our love for science. It also instills in our undergraduate interns the value of communicating with the public, and places our students in a leadership position, strengthening their confidence as young researchers,” said Rudie.
We hope to continue our partnership for years to come—building our relationships with the Upward Bound students as they make their way through the program, graduate high school, attend college, and maybe even come back to Carnegie as summer undergraduate interns!