It’s simple for scientists of all kinds to get involved with Letters to a Pre-Scientist. Just sign up here to join our mailing list. We send announcements to this list when we are looking for new pen pals. Scientists who are matched with a pen pal can look forward to receiving handwritten letters through out the year from a charming (and often hilarious) young person.
Just a few letters from you over the course of a year could play a huge role in transforming a young person’s life. We are hugely grateful to all our scientist pen pals for volunteering their time and energy to make a difference.
Matching pen pals
- At the start of each school year, we send a message to our mailing list inviting them to request a pen pal for that year.
- We survey our pre-scientists to find out what kind of science interests them. Then we match scientists and pre-scientists based on their overlapping interests.
- There are usually not enough pre-scientists in the program to satisfy the demand of all our scientist volunteers. Scientists who request a pen pal but are not matched will be placed on a waiting list.
- If you are matched with a pen pal, but are not able to meet the deadlines below, another scientist from the waiting list will be assigned to your pen pal.
Pen pals typically write four or five letters per school year. Important things to note:
- We require scientists to send their letters so they are received by a specific date. For example, if your deadline is on a Friday, and you live on the opposite side of the US from your pen pal, you should send your letter by the start of that week.
- Teachers need time to collect the dozens of letters they received and prepare for letter opening day. Letters will typically be opened 2 weeks after the deadline.
- It takes approximately 8 weeks to go through one cycle of exchanging letters. Our schedule is designed to give plenty of time for the letters to go through the mail, and plenty of time for both pen pals to respond.
- If you live outside the continental US, we ask that you also upload your letter by the deadline using this form, to protect against postal service delays.
The typical schedule for the 2016-2017 school year is below. Each classroom is in a different school system and may have a slightly different schedule. If you’ve been matched with a pen pal, your classroom coordinator will keep you informed about the deadlines by email.
- Round 1
- Letter received: Friday, September 30, 2016
- Letter opening day: Monday, October 17, 2016
- Replies sent: Friday, October 28, 2016
- Round 2
- Letter received: Monday, November 28, 2016
- Letter opening day: December 12, 2016
- Replies sent: December 23, 2016
- Round 3
- Letter received: Friday, January 20, 2017
- Letter opening day: Monday, February 6, 2017
- Replies sent: Friday, February 17, 2017
- Round 4
- Letter received: Friday, March 17, 2017
- Letter opening day: Monday, April 3, 2017
- Replies sent: Friday, April 14, 2017
- Round 5 (may not apply to some classrooms)
- Letter received: Friday, May 12, 2017
- Letter opening day: Tuesday, May 30, 2017
- Replies sent: Friday, June 9
Instructions for sending letters
- Try to make your letter age-appropriate so that your pen pal will be able to understand and engage with you.
- We recommend hand-writing your letter and then scanning it or taking a picture. That way if your letter is lost in the mail, you can send us a digital copy.
- Include a return address on the envelope. This should be wherever you want your reply to be delivered (can be home or work).
- Please send any donated supplies in a separate envelope from your letter, addressed directly to the teacher.
- Regular letter-size envelopes with extra items inside (e.g. pencils) often get stuck in the USPS mail sorter, so if you choose to send anything other than a letter, please pack it in a sturdy box or large, padded envelope.
- Do not send any mail that requires a signature or delivery confirmation. If your letter is running late and you think it will not be delivered on time, upload a scanned or typed copy using this form.
- Be patient in waiting for a reply letter. Your pen pal is learning about letter-writing through this process, and this can be a real challenge for some students. If you don’t receive a response before the next deadline, please continue to write letters. Your pen pal will read it and learn from it, we promise!
- Many kids will change classrooms and schools through out the year. If your pen pal moves away, we will put you on our waiting list for a new pen pal.
1st letter: Writing for the first time to an unknown pen pal can be intimidating. But don’t worry! You will know each other soon; you just have to get the conversation started. Here are some suggested topics to get your creative juices flowing.
- Introduce yourself: Where does your family live and how many siblings do you have (if any)? Do you have any pets? Describe your hobbies and give a unique fact about yourself.
- Current profession: If you are in college, describe your major and interesting facts about your college. If you have begun your career, describe what you do.
- Search for a common interest: Think about what you loved to do in middle school or what your younger siblings/children/cousins love. Share that with your pre-scientist!
- Ask questions: What are you intrigued to know about them? They all have some hilarious stories to share.
- Slice of life: Send something interesting from the city where you live. Examples include: a newspaper clipping, a picture of a favorite spot in town, a sticker from your college, a business card, a flyer of a main attraction, etc. Be as creative as you want.
2nd letter: You may have received a letter back from your pen pal and have lots of questions to answer. If you did not receive a letter, or if you are still looking for ideas on what to include, please see the prompts below:
- A day in the life: Some classes will be investigating their scientist’s job in the computer lab. Write a clear, student-friendly description of your job. You could include requirements to get there, a fun project you’ve worked on, what your daily schedule looks like, etc.
- Motivate: Explain what success means to you. How do you know when you are successful at your job? When did you realize that hard work leads to success, and what people or challenges lead you to that conclusion? What strategies do you use when something is difficult?
- Take them back: Describe your middle school experience. What did you do, like, or think about back in the day? Ask questions to see if things are similar or different from your middle school experience. Do you have a funny picture you could share?
If you are struggling with how to word your letter so it makes sense to your pen pal, please check out these outstanding example letters. These letters were typed, but we encourage you to hand-write your letters if possible.
Sample Letter 1: This is a fantastic introductory letter. It does use science words (which is important for vocabulary-building), but it also provides a kid-friendly explanation for those words. It includes pictures about different aspects of this scientist’s life, and makes it a point to talk about things that a middle schooler may be interested in. The scientist asks relevant questions and sounds genuinely interested in learning about her pen pal. This letter was written to a seventh grader. It may take a fifth grader a long time to read through a letter this long. If you are writing to a younger pre-scientist, we suggest you keep the letter to two pages or less.
Sample Letter 2: This letter was written as the second or third letter to a pen pal. It is excellent because it addresses a topic (success) in a way that is encouraging, relevant and kid-friendly. It asks specific questions and provides advice for exploring in the future. This letter was written to a seventh grader, and includes a few high-level vocabulary words. If your pen pal is younger than seventh grade, try to use words they are likely to understand.
Other ways to help out
The school your pen pal attends does not provide letter-writing supplies, so teachers must often purchase supplies with their own money in order to give their students this opportunity. If you have some resources to share, please consider sending supplies like stamps or envelopes along with your letter or in a separate package. If you would prefer to donate money directly, you can become a sponsor. Every little bit helps.
From time to time, our teachers like to set up classroom visits or online video chats with scientists. Contact us if you are interested in meeting a group of pre-scientists face-to-face or online.