Jamie Oleka has a class of 31 AP freshman life science students at Southern High School. They’re really interested in human health and like listening to Bruno Mars while doing work at their desks. They’ve also named the skeleton in the corner of the room “Fluffy.”
They are also part of a generation of students that have been on the receiving end of a yearslong national push to get more students engaged with STEM (that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics) topics.
But in some classrooms, like Oleka’s, teachers are realizing students may not fully understand the career opportunities in those fields.
“In the beginning of the trimester, I took a survey to try to figure out what type of science careers my students knew about,” Oleka said. “And the majority of them said ‘doctor’ or ‘nurse’ — but couldn’t think of any other STEM careers, which really upset me as a science teacher.”
She continued: “I think it’s super important for them as freshman to understand the opportunities they could have if they excel in science.”
So Oleka put out a call on Facebook.
She wrote: Who out there is related to science or has a STEM career, and would like to speak with my students?
That’s when she found out about the Skype a Scientist program. Skype a Scientist was started at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology by then-graduate student Sarah McAnulty.
On the surface, the program is really simple: teachers sign up their classrooms to video conference with working scientists. And in the few years its been running, Skype a Scientist has already connected scientists to more than 800 classrooms in nearly every U.S. state, and in more than a dozen countries around the world.
Oleka signed her class up and they were soon connected with an HIV/AIDS researcher from Emory University.
“We did it for about 40 minutes and there were even some that were so interested that they stayed beyond class,” Oleka said.
Cheris Elliby is one of Oleka’s students.
“I really liked it because it gave me a chance to actually ask a real scientist about what they do in their specific profession and what it entails,” she said. “It helps me figure out what kind of scientist I want to be.”
Right now, Cheris said, she’s interested in marine biology, zoology and anything involving animals.
“But I’m also divided because I want to go into nursing or researching cancer and stuff like that,” she said.
But for Jamie Oleka, this process was about more than just exposing her students to careers in science. Southern High School is a diverse place, so she also wanted to teach her students that anyone, regardless of background, can become a scientist.
“What I really like about Skype a Scientist as well is that they allow you to pick like folks who identify from a low-income background or who identify as a person of color, Asian, Black, Hispanic,” she said.
And for this reason, she plans on signing another class up this semester.