NCAR Program Helps Next-genera...

NCAR Program Helps Next-generation Scientists Explore Career Options

Despite the large and growing number of Latinos in the United States, this population remains severely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math-related (STEM) professions – making up less than 5% of the nation’s STEM workforce. Working with 15 high school students in Boulder, and partnering with CLACE (Centro Latinoamericano para las Artes, Ciencia, y Educación), and the Boulder Valley School District, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientists are coming to the end of a 2-year project in which both students and adults engaged in learning about the geosciences and related careers. The “science career” program was designed to capture a moment in time of the students’ lives during which they form lifelong interests and career aspirations.

As part of this program designed and developed by CLACE, 15 Latino students from Boulder’s Fairview High School learned how to use digital and media tools and equipment to explore climate change topics that interested them. While physics, chemistry and math are critical to developing a deep understanding of some aspects of climate change, social, historical, psychological, and cultural learning are equally important to establishing a full understanding of the issues related to climate change. This reality is reflected in the students’ final video projects, which include interviews with parents, teachers, fellow students, as well as climate experts to provide a variety of perspectives and contexts for understanding climate change.

“One of the most important roles that informal science projects like this one play is in developing and sustaining kids’ interest in science itself and in science careers,” explains Vidal Salazar, a scientific project manager in NCAR’s Earth Observing Laboratory (EOL) and NCAR’s lead on the program. “Working with CLACE and their group of facilitators, this student-driven digital storytelling program let the students’ natural curiosity about the world drive their creativity, with the work focused on science generally, and climate and climate change specifically.”

In the “video Lab” at Fairview high school, students met at least twice a week for 1.5 hours to work with an experienced bilingual and bicultural video producer (provided by CLACE). In the process, students developed skills in filming, digital storytelling, and video editing. These experiences led to production of Public Service Announcements (PSAs), as well as commentary videos, and animations related to climate change topics and environmental issues. Researchers from NCAR, NOAA, and the University of Colorado worked with the students to ensure scientific accuracy of the PSAs.

“In addition to creating short videos, an important aspect of this project was providing role models for the students,” says Salazar. “Studies show that mentors can foster young people’s academic and career achievements, not least by informing student choices simply by demonstrating pathways to success. This proves a powerful means of motivation, especially when it comes to underserved kids.”

Students were introduced to successful geosciences researchers and graduate students, with Salazar himself serving as a role model. In speaking with the students, Salazar talked about his career thus far. Growing up in Mexico learning English, he was interested in exchange of ideas and the world’s cultures. Pursuing a career in science and his current job satisfied many of his childhood interests and aspirations by involving him in the deployment of environmental research projects all over the world, Salazar told the students. A successful Latino, his descriptions of long-term educational and career goals, how he achieved these goals, and some of the lessons learned along the way, had particular resonance with the high schoolers.

In addition to their video-based explorations of climate science, Salazar wanted to impart to the students a sense of what the broader world and science might have to offer after high school. Toward this end, the students visited scientists at NCAR and made a trip to Denver’s Museum of Science and Nature to further explore scientific questions and the variety of possible career options. However, the most inspiring experience proved to be a week-long visit to San Francisco, where the kids presented their videos at a conference – the American Geophysical Union – as well as to students and faculty at University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Urban Planning and Engineering. NCAR funds dedicated to supporting diversity efforts covered the trip costs.

“NCAR’s commitment to outreach and developing a diverse scientific community has provided an amazing opportunity for these kids, some of whom had never been on a plane before or fully considered all of the possible career and educational options available to them,” says Salazar.

In speaking about his experience in San Francisco, Darian Valdez, a junior at Fairview and program participant relates that the lessons and advice received from the scientists has motivated him to become a scientist in a research and development field. “It seems fun. Someday, with enough work, I could be presenting my own poster,” he says.

Also in attendance at the Berkeley meeting was the senior policy advisor to the Governor of California’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), Ken Alex. The office runs a “Climate Changers” channel on YouTube that highlights videos from those doing work to advance understanding on climate science and climate change effects. As a result of meeting Alex, several student videos are included on the OPR site, www.youtube.com/oprclimatechange. In addition, student videos were featured on Univision Colorado, the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, and the Colorado Ocean Coalition.

Another student, Veronica Castro, a Fairview High junior, sums up her experiences in San Francisco, remarking, “A young scientist inspired me to never give up. Dreams do come true, no matter how much you struggle."

The final aspect of this project includes the hiring of two interns, Jennifer Aguilera and Nancy Contreras, by EOL. The young women were chosen competitively from the group of 15 to make the groups video-production proficiency visible to the broader scientific community. The two will create a web site that includes all of the videos, as well as commentary on both their personal experiences in the video lab program and the visits to AGU and Berkeley. In addition, Salazar will continue mentoring the students as they work with a data set collected during a recent EOL field campaign. As part of the research process, Aguilera and Contreras will present the results of their research internship at a national student conference in October 2013. The internship gives the young women an opportunity to experience what “doing” science is like, as well as offering them a chance to interact with college students who are slightly further ahead in the educational and career paths that Aguilera and Contreras have interest in pursuing after high school.

To view the Fairview High School videos, see: http://www.youtube.com/user/fhscinelatino

To view CLACE’s website see: http://www.clace.us