NY Hall of Science’s Science Career Ladder: Explainer Trainee is a profiled program in the Plugging In Report.
Who is served: For students ages 14–25 (in high school or college). 85 percent of participants are from backgrounds typically underrepresented in STEM, and 60 percent are female.
Number of participants: 165 in 2018
Location: New York Hall of Science (NYSCI)
Frequency/Duration: 2-day orientation. High school students: minimum 5 hours per weekend, and additional shifts during school breaks and summer. College students: minimum of 10 hours on weekdays and up to 20 hours per week. Explainers spend an average of 2.25 years in the program. 1 hour per week of peer-to-peer training
Eligibility Criteria: Currently enrolled in high school or college in New York City; Interest in exploring and learning STEM; Interest in interacting with the public and developing communication skills
Curriculum: Explainers are trained to work in the museum, including explaining exhibits and engaging visitors and younger students, as well as leading hands-on activities. “Their main purpose is to bring the science to life and make it relatable,” said Priya Mohabir, director of the Alan J. Friedman Center for the Development of Young Scientists at NYSCI. There’s a lot of breaking down complex ideas; “Rather than talking about the refractive index of various mediums and how that changes over time, you might talk about how light bends through a certain object through different times of the day,” said Mohabir.
Students don’t necessarily learn how to code (though there have been coding workshops for some cohorts), but rather, “It’s really thinking about technology, not just as a career pathway, but technology as a skillset that you need for any aspect of a STEM career.” For example, NYSCI has hosted engineering career nights for Explainers with discussions around “the role that technology and coding skills play in how [engineers] are designing new software or workflows.”
Skills: communication skills, scientific process, teaching and communicating science.
Outcomes: Many students go on to major in STEM fields in college; in the program’s 33-year existence, 95 percent of participants have gone on to college, with 70 percent majoring in STEM.
Mohabir also emphasizes that 89% of alumni are using the communication and presentation skills and scientific literacy skills that they gained through the program in their academic lives and in their careers. Explainer Trainees can move up to become senior Explainers as well.
Partnerships: CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), Internationals Network for Public Schools, Young Adult Borough Centers, Kingsborough Community College, Hostos Community College.
Cost: Free; participants are paid minimum wage
Sources of funding: Private
What makes the program stand out? While many Science Career Ladder participants go on to pursue STEM in college and beyond, the program’s emphasis is on “how STEM literacy makes you a more active citizen” and a more capable decision-maker in multiple sectors, said Mohabir. The rounded approach reflects efforts across NYSCI to prioritize active engagement with families in surrounding neighborhoods, which are made up largely of recent immigrants. The museum offers free STEM workshops for local parents, for example, and hosted a conference on STEM as an opportunity pathway for first-generation families. This is the environment in which Explainers are immersed.
The program also supports a vast alumni network, and Explainers participate in various professional development and career exploration opportunities, from events with STEM internship providers and nonprofit providers of STEM programs (like Girls Who Code and All Star Code) to field trips to tech companies to events where university leaders describe the different STEM majors they offer. Participants also engage in weekly peer-to-peer training with Senior Explainers in science content, and communication and presentation skills. “We’re trying to become a support system for a community of people who might have some hurdles to face as they move forward in their academic and career lives. Building this as a community has been really helpful [for participants] just to fall back on,” Mohabir said.
What does the organization need? NYSCI is not looking to expand the size of the 100-person program because it wants to maintain “the one-on-one attention and the sense of community,” said Mohabir. She would like to extend career exploration workshops to a broader range of students but funding is a challenge, in part because Explainer doesn’t qualify for inclusion in SYEP (because students stay for years, not weeks), “although this work is directly contributing to the development of students that live in the city,” she said. Mohabir would like to see more city funding, specifically from DYCD, directed toward non-city agencies, particularly cultural organizations that are focused on youth.
How is computational thinking integrated into the program? New York Hall of Science has also become a leader in developing K–12 and professional development programs that integrate computational thinking, including through a partnership with Robin Hood. An app called The Pack, for example, created by NYSCI and Design I/O with input from middle and high school teachers, combines environmental systems and computational thinking concepts. Designed for classroom or home use, the digital game prompts students to test and revise algorithms by, for instance, having them combine game functions (such as holding and digging for food sources) in a computational sequence (an algorithm). Explainers help lead NYSCI programs for younger students that involve computational thinking, such as in the Maker Space, “so they have an opportunity to learn a new content area, but also be role models or near peer mentors for those students in the program,” said Mohabir.