By Dr. Donna Jagielski

Freya Abraham is a University of Arizona college student who may never have thought she would be a top STEM student scholar and ambassador at such a young age. She grew up in the commuter town of Maricopa, Arizona, where much of the community consists of younger families, retired empty nesters, and snowbirds. While at Maricopa High School, Freya made the bold move to serve her student body at Maricopa High School and her community as a chief science officer (CSO), developing her leadership skills with her passion and dedication to the field of science and STEM.

The CSO program is an international student program part of the SciTech Institute. The program is open to all students in grades sixth through 12th. The main requirement is that students have a passion and dedication to serving as STEM ambassadors and advocates for their community. Students serve in this capacity by being nominated by their peers, by school staff, or applying to be selected by the CSO student leaders within various cabinets. CSOs create and implement their own individualized action plan based on the needs of their local context. To execute their action plans, CSOs collaborate with their peers, mentors, and professionals in the field.

When I sat down to speak with CSO Alumni Freya, I wanted to learn about her story as to how she became involved in the CSO program, how it impacts STEM-based education, and finally, how all these factors influence STEM reaching underrepresented populations.

Dr. Jagielski: Describe your STEM journey in relation to the CSO program.

Freya: When I was younger, I was passionate about the medical field. In high school, I started a club that focused on bringing STEM opportunities to peers, based on the needs and interests in my community. As the group started to take off, I was named a CSO. The training and resources I received as a CSO inspired me to push my STEM program further, informed me of ways to increase our impact and convinced me of the importance of connecting kids to STEM. It showed me how connecting students to STEM has the potential to change trajectories and has given me the confidence to continue to pursue broad STEM empowerment initiatives in college.

Dr. Jagielski: What does the CSO program offer students that they don’t receive in school, through “formal” education?

Freya: Inspiration and encouragement. The CSO program gives students the connections and training to pursue the subjects that they’ve learned about through “formal education” in the real world. Students don’t have to ‘wait’ to start networking and making changes for their communities – if they’re ready, the program is ready to support them starting as early as the 6th grade. For students who don’t come from schools with a plethora of STEM resources, the CSO program provides them access and opportunities to learn about companies, research, and industries that they might not have otherwise heard about until much, much later.

Dr. Jagielski: Since the CSO program has grown exponentially, there has now been the development of the alumni program. How important is the development of the CSO alumni program? What efforts are being made to create greater visibility for the program? How do the alumni serve the community and especially up-and-coming CSOs?

Freya: The development of the CSO alumni program poses a great opportunity to expand the reach and visibility of the CSO program. College students are able to mentor younger students and cultivate a culture of continuing to give back to STEM empowerment initiatives. They are also able to engage with each other as fellow aspiring leaders in their respective fields. Once we, the alumni board, have built the capacity to expand, we will be ready to explore several areas of impact in addition to the current support of existing CSOs, such as expanding the CSO program to communities that have been historically underrepresented in the STEM narrative. Alumni can play a greater role in building connections in communities, for example, with Title 1 schools and libraries in low-income neighborhoods.  Starting with smaller-scale events, we have organized “Meet an Alumni” sessions with high school CSOs to learn more about how we can support them and are hosting virtual monthly sessions connecting alumni across the globe

The CSO program can be integrated in a number of ways. One way is through “out of school time” (extracurricular, “informal” learning time) as well as formally integrated into the K-12 coursework/curriculum. Whether formally, or informally, it inevitably impacts STEM-based learning. I was curious to learn how Freya views STEM-based opportunities as related to formal and informal STEM-based learning.

Dr. Jagielski: What are the barriers to providing quality STEM-based opportunities for our current K-12 students?

Freya: Cost and accessibility are the two biggest barriers. Attending panels and conferences involves fees, and for students who aren’t part of a program like CSO or a funded program at their school, that burden often falls on families. While there are increasing opportunities to earn scholarships, these processes to secure aid might seem too labor intensive for a kid who is not sure that they’re that excited about a particular STEM venture in the first place. Overall accessibility is the second barrier, spanning many aspects. Take a look at transportation for example. Our rural populations especially face this challenge. Even if an event is free, and the student can afford a ride share to the event location (which is a big assumption), parents and guardians might not feel comfortable letting young students travel alone to events. These activities might be after school and end in the evening, so without a trusted chaperone, students may not be encouraged to participate in them. Virtual opportunities present a great solution to these challenges, but they sometimes fall short due to the lack of excitement felt over a flat screen and limited direct engagement, in comparison to actually getting hands-on experience in a facility, for example. In another aspect, information accessibility is necessary to learn about such events. While event promotion sometimes relies on the internet and social media, an individual’s knowledge about STEM opportunities is typically dependent on their personal connections. In order for students to grow, they shouldn’t be limited to their family, school, or local networks. Great efforts must be put into the promotion by both organizers and the public, both through traditional word-of-mouth streams and social media for the purpose of youth STEM involvement.

In many instances, our K-12 educational system lacks the opportunity to obtain ‘real world experience’. But before we determine what “real world experiences” are as related to STEM, we must first discuss what STEM is and isn’t. Sometimes it is difficult to demystify STEM. Since CSOs discuss what STEM is on a regular basis with everyone from families at STEM nights to legislative decision-makers I asked Freya how we discuss what STEM is. Once there is an understanding of what STEM actually is, we can look at establishing real-world experiences. Creating real-world experiences is imperative when we are looking up the road in terms of careers whether they be “STEM-based careers” or otherwise.

Dr. Jagielski: How much do you think formal education learning experiences align with “real world” expectations?

Freya: One aspect that I personally did not develop fully in K-12 education, was the ability to question supposedly valid authorities. In school, we are given textbooks – or lectures from those textbooks – and we take exams based on the information in those textbooks as if everything written is credible without a doubt. While the text might be fully credible, it also might not be, as I found when reading some analyses in my AP World History textbook on the beliefs held by people in particular countries. To my consternation, the conclusions drawn were highly contrary to what I had learned from other sources. As students, we are not fully encouraged to criticize an authority’s analysis or read between the lines to discover what they are not saying.  In my AP English classes, I learned that it is harder to refute a point entirely than to find aspects that agree with it, which is certainly true. However, given the time constraints of testing, we were not encouraged to practice the skill of refutation as much as we practiced agreement, as the former takes longer than the latter. As a college student, I’ve been an assistant and intern in various research settings where my teams have regularly analyzed new results released by fellow scientists in the field. My teams would examine papers to see if the conclusions the authors claimed truly aligned with their provided data. This type of review process felt unnatural to me at first because I had so rarely practiced this necessary skill. Overall, real-world expectations are certainly more nuanced and tailored to the present moment than most formal learning experiences. It is becoming increasingly well-known that good grades aren’t enough to prove yourself as a good candidate for jobs, leadership positions, etc. Students must prove that they have critical thinking and problem-solving skills through the work they do in their communities to have the best chances of success. As a scientist, and in school, I’ve been told that failures allow for the most learning. While failing wasn’t often rewarded in the education system, and I avoided it as much as possible, in my own life and in my work experiences, I’ve come to see that innovation cannot be separated from failure.

Dr. Jagielski: STEM-based jobs/careers are typically considered in categories such as robotics, aerospace, AI, and tech areas in general. Are there STEM jobs and “non” STEM jobs, or is STEM embedded in ALL jobs/careers?

Freya: So I literally had to look up “non-STEM jobs” for this question. I don’t think there’s any job out there that doesn’t require some grasp of science, and the other letters of the acronym, whether that be social science, design aspects, algorithms, or any form of technology.

Dr. Jagielski: Based on your response to that question, it is evident that STEM impacts all areas of our lives now, from drones in agriculture to the transportation industry with self-driving cars. As you have evolved as a student STEM leader, how do you break down misconceptions about what STEM really is?

Freya: Regarding the concept of demystifying STEM, I learned the most about breaking down misconceptions from the great teachers I had who broke down engineering and physics into simple DIY projects, like building boats that could float. This sort of STEM exposure is important throughout all K-12 education because it gives students a chance to make coursework come to life with their own hands, setting them up to be the movers and shakers of the future. Given the increased need to meet age-appropriate testing standards after the pandemic, I understand why separate focuses on reading and math might be all teachers can make time for. However, schools that primarily focus on reading and math scores as indicators of student success must understand that if they are not providing opportunities for kids to model how to be active in their communities and interact with the world around them, they are indirectly failing their students. Exposure to STEM is a great way for students to understand what’s emerging, changing, and relevant today, and that knowledge is the basis of empowerment.

To wrap up the dynamic discussion, since Freya painted an incredible picture of her journey in STEM as a young female college student, I wanted to learn more about where she has identified the gaps in equitable access to STEM. Who are we not reaching and why? And what can we do to change the current status of accessibility to STEM?

Dr. Jagielski: Who are the audiences we are NOT reaching with STEM and what are we doing to change that paradigm?

Freya: Again, it circles back to equity and access. Kids whose families are not in direct STEM fields, or whose parents do not have a grasp of how their own work relates to STEM. Kids who do not have the time, security, finances, or transportation to engage with STEM outside of school. Kids who have never been given the impression that STEM is for them personally, and not just for peers with lives that look much different than theirs. These are the ongoing challenges we face. I am aware of initiatives that focus on reaching more rural, low-income, or historically underrepresented students with STEM opportunities, and I applaud them. I believe it’ll be a continual effort to mentor and support these groups to achieve full STEM equity. As the international CSO alumni board continues to grow, we look forward to launching initiatives targeted at shifting this paradigm so that our coming generation is equipped with greater equitable access. There is amazing work happening and a lot of work that still needs to be done.

About the author:

Dr. Donna Jagielski has spent over 20 years in K-12 education as an educator and administrator. She has served as Principal, AP, and instructional coach and many of her years as Director of STEM programming. Most recently she has been developing and leading STEM-based educational programs with nonprofit organizations. She currently serves as Education Programs Manager with the Arizona Sustainability Alliance.  She has an extensive background in STEM-based learning and educational technology. With many years of involvement with the CSO program, she has served as a CSO advisor, school lead, and county coordinator.