Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Guest Post: Lauren Tompkins on Expanding Your Horizons

Guest Post from Lauren Tompkins a postdoc in the University of Chicago ATLAS group.

Last February, as my first winter as a University of Chicago postdoc wore on, I became restless with my everyday routine.  I was doing interesting work on an electronics upgrade to the Atlas Experiment at the LHC, but felt disconnected from life outside of the Ivory Tower.  I thought that doing some outreach, particularly in a city as large and diverse as Chicago, would restore that connection for me.  As was mentioned in a previous post, finding an existing program is a good way to get started in outreach, so I set out to find a program that I was sure would exist in Chicago, Expanding Your Horizons (EYH).  

EYH is an international organization of over 70 one-day conferences for middle school girls.  At the conferences, women from the local STEM community do hands-on workshops with the girls, showing them that STEM careers are fun and accessible, hoping to empower them to take their place in the science and technology world.  Jessica and I participated in EYH several times through UC Berkeley’s Society of Women in the Physical Sciences.  Our perennial workshop was build-your-own radio.  Our group spent less than $500 on simple crystal radio kits which we helped the 45 girls construct during the workshop. Watching their faces light up when they first heard a transmission on a radio they constructed by hand was a treat. EYH seemed like a perfect way to get involved in outreach.  

A google search turned up no entries for EYH Chicago, and so, with the support of my boss, Young-Kee Kim, I decided to start one.   I knew that with three major research universities and two national labs in the area, finding fellow planners would be easy, and it would be a great opportunity to meet other women invested in outreach.

That was in March.  It has now been several months of planning and there is a fantastic group of organizers in place.  We are a group of ten women, half from University of Chicago, half from University of Illinois at Chicago.  We are mostly graduate students and postdocs, evenly distributed between research science and STEM education.  Many of us have been involved in EYH in the past, either as participants, workshop leaders or organizers.  Everyone is in charge of some aspect of the planning.  I oversee the budget and the overall planning process, and I’m gaining experience in project management, a valuable skill in my research field.  Some people are in charge of recruiting workshop leaders, others oversee outreach to teachers and students, as well as more mundane but vital details such as facilities and compliance with the University rules.  Our workshop is scheduled for March 23rd and we plan to host 200 girls on the campus of University of Chicago.  The University has been very supportive, providing us with start-up funding and space in the physics and chemistry buildings.  The girls will have the opportunity to do 3 workshops, you can check the evolving schedule on our website.

Our main challenges are twofold.  We are targeting schools from underprivileged neighborhoods, which primarily serve students of color.  We would like to involve STEM professional women who look like them, but sadly, there are very few.  Second, we are trying to inspire the girls to take their place in the STEM world, but that world is much broader than academic research so we need to find workshop leaders from outside academia.  To overcome these two challenges we are reaching out to community groups and professional organizations to try to identify relevant workshop leaders. For example, we would love to have a structural engineer help the girls design a building, or a forensic scientist guide them through a mini crime scene.  A computer programmer could show them how to write an ap and a sound engineer could help them mix a track. (I didn’t come up with this one on my own--it was a favorite of the girls at the Mills EYH!).

Planning an EYH conference isn’t for everyone, but I highly encourage anyone to get involved, either as a workshop leader or as a volunteer, in your local EYH.  You can find a conference near you by going to the national website’s conference locator, and find examples and resources for putting on a workshop.