It’s hard to believe that LPS is already moving into its eighth year of inspiring pre-scientists across the United States! To celebrate the occasion, we sat down with founders Macon Lowman and Anna Goldstein to discuss the inception of the program and their hopes for its future.
How did you two originally meet?
Macon: I started a pen pal program in my classroom in the Fall of 2010 and reached out to various friends, former co-workers and colleagues in the sciences to ask them if they’d like to participate or knew anyone who would. This simple email got spread further than I could have ever imagined and I was receiving daily emails from scientists worldwide wanting to participate. It was exciting, but also a bit overwhelming to manage on my own. Thankfully, one of those people on the receiving end of the initial recruitment email was Anna, who received word of my request from a friend. She reached out to me and wanted to not only participate as a pen pal, but grow my little classroom pen pal program into something bigger.
Anna: I first heard of Macon’s project when a friend from North Carolina forwarded her email asking for volunteers. I was in graduate school studying chemistry, and I loved the idea of giving students a chance to interact with scientists through letters. Lots of my fellow students and I were already engaged in various outreach projects and there is clearly a desire amongst scientists to help inspire students toward science education. But of course scientists also tend to be very busy in lab, so writing letters is a great way for them to contribute quickly and easily. I reached out to Macon and offered to help grow her idea and allow it to continue beyond her classroom, and Letters to a Pre-Scientist was born!
What is your favorite memory from leading this program?
Macon: The letter opening days are at the top of my list. You can just feel the energy of the students when you walk into the classroom on a letter opening day. I love hearing all the ways the teachers build the students anticipation for opening day as the letters arrive by doing things like tracking where scientist live or what they study. I hear repeatedly from teachers each year that as it gets closer to letter opening day – the students begin pleading for this to be the morning they get to open their letters. I would always have my students wait until everyone had a letter in their hand and then do a countdown (3…2…1… open!) to open their envelopes, the students would be so incredibly excited and then all of a sudden complete silence would fall over the classroom, as they browsed through their letters, photos and other items scientists sent along. This silence was quickly followed by chatter and questions of who each other’s pen pal is, what they did for fun, where they lived, etc… the whole day is just fascinating to observe children absolutely engaged in science and beginning to form a connection with a real person in the field.
Seven years on, what has been your motivation for continuing to run LPS?
Anna: I keep working on this project because I know that it makes a lot of people happy. The students and scientists all love the experience of opening a letter and learning from their pen pal. And everyone gets a chance to grow through the challenge of writing a letter and trying to connect personally with someone in different life circumstances.
Macon: There are so many layers of this program that keep me coming back despite some of the struggles and frustrations of each year. On a population level, I am motivated by doing a small part to help our education system in the current political climate. I am also motivated by knowing students are able to make these global connections beyond their classroom walls, and even if they don’t end up going into a science field, they have something that provides them a positive association with school and learning. For scientists, I enjoy how it allows them to reflect on why they got into the field they are in and see their work from a child’s perspective.
Why should teachers and scientists become a part of LPS?
Anna: Teachers should get involved if they want their students to get a totally new perspective on the world. Our teachers tell us that their students are often deeply impacted by having an adult on the other side of the country, maybe even the other side of the world, take a personal interest in their life and education. Scientists should get involved if they want to help a kid learn and grow. We hear from scientists that exchanging letters can be a lot of fun, and can also challenge their expectations of what it’s like to be a middle school student, discovering so much about who they are and what they can do.
How do you envision the program growing in the future? How can teachers and scientists help?
Anna: Our dream for this program is to formalize it as part of a non-profit organization with paid staff. We want to be able to provide the pen pal experience without asking for too much time and effort from our already busy teachers. We also want to streamline the process for our scientist volunteers and make it simple for them to send and receive letters quickly and reliably. Donations are always a huge help, as we can use them to keep the program running while also investing in the future needs!
Macon: Making the program a nonprofit would allow us to not only expand our reach, but also the opportunities we can provide students. This past year, we had two classrooms go on field trips to science labs that one of their pen pals worked at – it would be really neat to provide opportunities like this on a more regular basis. I think we’re also always striving to make the program fit into classrooms better. It’s difficult because state standards are constantly changing, but in an ideal world, this program would be extremely complementary to each classroom’s curriculum.
If you’d like to get involved with LPS, check out information for teachers and scientists, or support the program with a donation. Registration for classrooms and scientists to participate as pen pals in 2017-18 is open until August 4 and September 13, respectively.