My department just did something really cool, and I’d like to tell you about it*.
On a Saturday, my department, along with our campus Center for Innovation in STEM Education, held a family research day.
A room was reserved, and a series of students gave short talks about their research. The talks were designed for their families to learn the purpose of the research that they’re doing. I imagine there were snacks. (I heard that all of the talks were in Spanish.)
Right off the bat, I see some huge benefits.
First, it’s a good experience for students and faculty, to learn more about communicating science with people who aren’t scientists.
Second, it allows faculty mentors and the loved ones of their students to meet. I’ve always enjoyed the brief contact I’ve had with the family of my lab members (usually at graduation or the airport). This helps families put a human face on being a scientist, and helps us as PIs understand where are students are coming from.
Last — and this is the biggie to me — this experience helps families become tangibly familiar with what it means to do science, and to be a scientist. It allows them to see how people do science for a living — and that being trained as a STEM professional can be a route to a productive career. For first-generation university students, a big impediment into recruiting students into STEM is that it’s not perceived as a stable or reliable profession by their families. A lot of students have family pressure to go into the health professions, or business, or something that looks like it’ll end up with a reliable paycheck. Bringing families onto campus just makes sense, to help people become more informed.
Well, is training in STEM as reliable, career-wise, as becoming a nurse or a doctor? Perhaps not. Nonetheless family members might be reluctant to support research-oriented STEM undergraduates out of a lack of familiarity, and this kind of event helps create familiarity. I think we need to be honest about career options, and that involves letting people know what doing science is about, why it’s cool, and that there are many professional options for people who go to grad school. I’m not dissuading my students to go to grad school if they like and are good at research – I strongly encourage it.
If we’re doing this effectively, this often means bringing family members on board.
*At least as much as I can. I’ve been dutifully avoiding anything related to campus during sabbatical. But I had to swing by to take care of a few things, and I heard a little about this after it happened.