Letter Themes


Throughout the year, visit this page to find specific information about the theme of each letter round, including prompts and resources to guide your writing. You’ll also receive prompts via email each round.

Including content related to the theme in each letter is important because: 

  • These are the topics we have identified as important for every pair to discuss to accomplish our program goals. 
  • Themes help teachers plan for what to expect in your letters so they can use letter content to support their lessons. Your student will use your letter during class to complete an activity related to the theme before replying to your letter.
  • In the unfortunate situation that your pre-scientist isn’t able to send you a letter one round, or you are having trouble connecting with your pen pal, themes provide suggestions about what to write about.

The prompts should guide one part of your letter, but aren’t meant to limit your creativity or prescribe your entire letter. The individuality of each letter is what makes this program special, and we encourage you to discuss topics beyond the themes to foster a connection with your pen pal and encourage them to explore their interests.

Important note: We’re still very much in the middle of a pandemic that is impacting everyone, some more than others. Please consider using a few lines of your letter to check in with your pen pal about how they are doing. Supporting students’ social emotional learning is a crucial foundation to build engagement in academics. Encourage your pen pal to share their thoughts, worries, questions and strategies for coping with you if they feel comfortable. Share yours as well.

Round 1: STEM Career Pathways

The topic for letter one is your STEM career path. In one or two paragraphs, explain your occupation in student-friendly language. For many students, this is the first time they are connecting science to a job! Students will share what you do with other students in their class. We aim for students to develop concrete examples of what “being a scientist” could mean, and help them see that there are many paths to become a STEM professional.

Prompts:

*Don’t try to address every question.

  1. Where do you work or study? Describe or include a picture. (ex. in the field, a lab, on a computer in an office, do you travel?)
  2. Describe a typical day. (ex. work on a team, virtually, what tasks do you complete daily?)
  3. How has your work been impacted by COVID-19?
  4. What type of science do you do? Explain. (ex. life, earth, physical, computer science)
  5. What’s the wow-factor? What stands out as the best or most exciting part of your job? (from your perspective or from the perspective of a middle schooler)
  6. What questions guide your work? What bigger picture problem are you attempting to solve? What do you hope to accomplish long-term?
  7. How did you get to where you are today? Describe your “path to become a STEM professional?” (timelines are great here!)

*You’ll expand on higher ed in a future letter, so no need to go deep into schooling now.

Resources:

The following is a list of external websites to guide students’ discovery of new science careers. We hope students not only learn about your career, but other STEM careers aligned with their interests. Feel free to browse and then suggest a career that might spark your student’s interest. Or, since many of these websites were made for students, feel free to select the one that seems most appropriate for your student and include the link in one of your letters. Encourage your pre-scientist to do research and report back to you in their reply!

Science Buddies: comprehensive list of careers, separated by type of science and written for a middle school audience

Inventing Heron: stories from real scientists, geared towards career exploration

McGraw Hill Education: The STEM Career Kids

Learn How to Become: focuses on careers in the life sciences, including salaries and projected job growth

National Career Service: substantial list of STEM careers

Kids Ahead: interviews with real scientists

Kids Science Challenge: interviews with scientists working in paleontology, seismology, microbiology, and mineralogy

Frontiers for Young Minds: a collaboration between scientists and young readers to publish accessible articles about recent STEM discoveries

Round 2: Higher Education Journeys

The topic for this round is your higher education journey! In one or two paragraphs, break down your path from high school to where you are today to help your pre-scientist realistically understand one way to “become a STEM professional when they grow up.” We believe reading about your journey will make “going to college” more real for your pre-scientist, even though we acknowledge every higher-education experience is unique. Consider including pictures of you in college, your mascot, campus, etc. to help your pre-scientist visualize a college experience. Students will be engaging in research about your college(s) before replying to your letter, so feel free to include a website for them to visit!

As you consider what to share this round, try to think back to your middle school self. Would hearing that you are in 30th grade have been motivating or intimidating? Would you have been able to understand a sentence with the word ‘postdoc’? In the past, some students have expressed being unsure of their ability to become a scientist after hearing about how some of you have been in college for 10+ years after high school. We encourage you to share your perspective about why higher education is exciting and how it is different from middle school. We also challenge you to define all college related vocabulary you use! Students may not have prior experience learning about different types of colleges or degrees, and this is a great opportunity to build their “college knowledge”.

Prompts:

*Don’t try to address every question.

  1. When did you start thinking about college? What were the first steps of your search?
  2. How did you decide where to apply? What to major in? What were your limiting factors?
  3. What were you excited or worried about before you started college? How were your expectations similar or different from reality?
  4. Describe your favorite part of being a college student or favorite class.
  5. How is college different from middle school? How is it the same?
  6. At any point during your higher ed journey, did you feel intimidated, like you didn’t belong, or unsure if you would graduate? Share how you pressed on and what you learned as a result.
  7. Have more than one degree or attend multiple institutions of higher education? Explain what they are and why you pursued them to help your pre-scientist understand the difference between community college, undergraduate, graduate school, postdoc, etc. Did you know you wanted to pursue graduate school when you began your college journey? If not, how did you decide it was right for you?
  8. What should a middle schooler be thinking about or doing now to set them up to be prepared to apply for college at the end of high school? What should they NOT be worrying about yet?
  9. Describe how higher education has opened up opportunities for you.
  10. Create a timeline with highlights from each year beginning with your college search to finding a job post college to show your higher education path.

Round 3: Overcoming Obstacles

Check back later this year for round three prompts.

Round 4: Reflect and Inspire

Check back later this year for round four prompts.