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I am a Hispanic student (senior undergraduate) from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background pursuing a graduate degree in Physics in US (I just finished submitting my applications). I do not know anyone from my neighborhood that attended college, much less pursued an advanced degree, and I find myself abhorred by the educational inequality in the US (and the world) on a daily basis. I've undertaken some personal outreach endeavors thus far, I act as a mentor via email for minority students in K-12 (for example, I send them updates about what projects I'm doing and links that I think are suitable for their age group) and I stay in contact with minority undergraduates in STEM whom find themselves faced with (socioeconomic) obstacles similar to those that I have faced.

My parents were hard workers, but they had little time (or money) to stimulate me intellectually as a child, and they also had no idea what it meant to pursue a PhD in anything besides a medical doctor. Thus, I really only became familiar with the notion of pursuing a career in scientific research when I arrived at college; prior to arriving at college, engineering was my idea of what it meant to be a "scientist", or, to "do science" as a career.

I would say that over the course of the past three years I have become a relatively successful researcher, and in some ways I have made up for lost time, but to this day I can only cringe thinking about where I (or someone in my same shoes) might be today if I had been exposed to science at a younger age.

Does anyone have advice as to how I can begin making a significant impact in scientific outreach as a graduate student? I have a knack for programming, and the majority of my research is computational in nature, so I think I might be well suited for helping individuals learn programming remotely, or something of that effect.

  • As a data point, ASU launched last year a outreach program with special focus on the Hispanic community and where a good part of the work is being done by PhD students. You may want to look at what they do, and the results they are getting. – Davidmh Jan 3 '15 at 6:40
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Outreach comes in two flavours: creating interest (wow, this science thing is actually cool!), and educating (this is how you program). I think both are necessary, so take your pick (or both).

Also, don't even think of making it a one man effort. I don't advise to do it alone. There will be times where you will be swarmed in work, and then your outreach will just fall out of priority. Instead, team up with undergrads, schools, youth centres... whoever is willing to help you. If your university has something in place, you should probably go for it, as it will probably suit your primary needs the most. If you cannot find anyone, you can always start alone and get people on board along the way, but do make this a priority to ensure continuity.

Story time: when I was an undergrad, I joined the astronomy club at my university and we did a lot of outreach, mostly talks and workshops about different topics. It was a very good starting point, as I met people that have been in the business for some time, and could help me avoid some of the beginners mistakes. To give you an idea of our success, in some years, we (a dozen of undergrads), single handedly organised half of the events for the Science Week at the Physics Department, usually getting fully booked in less than a week since opening the registrations.

My experiences showed that:

  • Many teachers are overworked, underpaid, and frustrated; and they would take your activities as a way to relax for an hour. A few others are still passionate and will go out of their way to get you in the classroom and make the most of it.
  • Teenagers are difficult to begin with, but once you break the toughness layer, they have a bunch of interesting ideas. Also, beyond that point there are not many differences between posh and underprivileged schools.
  • Ideally, all fronts should be covered. This includes schools, family activities, talks for adults, elderly centres, giving teachers ideas... But of course, you don't have to do them all.
  • Be engaging. Get small groups, if you can. Prefer interaction in person. I wouldn't recommend teaching programming remotely, as it is too easy to ignore it. It would only work with kids that are really interested, but then, there are tons of online resources to learn.
  • Sometimes, kids behave like mushrooms, and there is nothing you can do about it. Don't let that frustrate you. Don't be impervious to (self) criticism, though.
  • Talk to professors active in outreach, even if they are out of your expertise. In my university there were a couple of them from the Optics department, that taught me a few nifty low budget experiments.
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    +1 for everything but "Also, don't even think of making it a one man effort.". I mean, in many cases it is good to have more people. But one can be totally fine with running a site, or giving lectures, or 1-1 mentoring as single person (and it many cases there is an advantage of not needing to wait for, or adhere to, others). – Piotr Migdal Jan 3 '15 at 14:02
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    @PiotrMigdal doing anything worth requires continuity. A PhD student cannot commit so much, there are times where other demands take over. Maybe I was a bit strong, and one can definitely start it alone, but to keep it alive, one would need support. – Davidmh Jan 3 '15 at 16:06
  • Well, keeping something alive is great. But it's better to start from scratch something worth one's time that continue something not worth it (for various reasons). (Things here are not theory - rather my experience over last ~9 years. Certainly, the best things are ones which I run with others and are now still alive. Yet, most things needs some starting impulse, who will lead and take responsibility. Waiting for others is the best way to forfeit an opportunity.) – Piotr Migdal Jan 3 '15 at 18:15
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    "Sometimes, kids behave like mushrooms, and there is nothing you can do about it." How do mushrooms behave? – Faheem Mitha Jan 3 '15 at 19:56
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    @FaheemMitha they subsist doing nothing. – Davidmh Jan 3 '15 at 19:59
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Outreach - to start with, once you know something worth sharing (and for sure you do, as you are a PhD student), the biggest thing is your motivation and drive for it.

There are various styles of doing outreach, and for various audiences (of different age, specialization etc).

In some sense its up to your taste to choose topic and the audience. As you are from a disadvantaged group you should know the best what kind of help and stimulation would had benefited you the most.

It's important to look at the "added value" - i.e. how much they benefit from it. (Sometimes a spark of inspiration can be better than concentrating knowledge; but also sometimes a lecture can be cool but provide little long-term value.)

What you can do?

  • Giving lectures.
  • Doing workshops.
  • 1-1 mentoring.
  • Running some blog (but this is less sure, as there is less direct feedback).

In any case, it's mostly practice, practice and practice. You will learn which things work the best, and which - do not. Which things are interesting for the audience, which - not as much as for you.

If you are in programming, it is a good way to start, as it gives them tools they can play with by themselves, and it is beneficial in many different job scenarios.

It's of course good to contact people in your department, who are involved in outreach - very likely they can provide some advice and it may be possible that there are organizations or events you can join (whether run by univ. or something external).

Also, some of my experiences are captured here: An independent camp for high school geeks (some lessons can be used in different settings).

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I can completely relate to you. There are plenty of programs out there where you can do some outreach. You can check out Code2040 : http://code2040.org/ . Its a program that helps minorities get their foot in the door in the tech world. It might not be exactly what you had in mind but I would try to network with the coordinators maybe they can give you better advice on your journey. You can also try doing outreach through your local library. I know that some libraries offer tech literacy courses so that maybe good place to start. You can also try to create a non-profit organization for your cause as well.

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