One Chapter’s Outreach Story, and What You Can Learn
The University of New England (UNE), one of the founding institutions of the Maine Chapter of SfN, has grown its outreach program over the years, now engaging more than 4,000 students annually. Outreach activities even span internationally through UNE’s campus in Tangier, Morocco.
Here is a behind the scenes look at how we began small and achieved growth.
In 2002, I had a chance meeting with a teacher at Biddeford High School that led to an invitation to give a talk on the neurobiology of substance abuse and addiction.
Around the same time, many of our faculty members had young kids entering surrounding school systems, and they shared a passion for engaging K-12 students and the broader public on topics related to their fields.
Guest talks and career days led to more formal activities and demonstrations. Over time, we built relationships and trust with parents, teachers, superintendents, and the community, which enabled us to expand while improving quality and impact.
UNE also designated neuroscience as a Center of Excellence in 2007, which provided modest funds to invest in research, education, and outreach. Through these funds, we offered support to a K-12 outreach coordinator, Mike Burman, who played a critical role in the next phase of growth. We also applied for foundation and federal grants to support and evaluate our efforts.
We even involved UNE students and staff in the design, testing, delivery, and assessment of our activities. This spread out the workload, led to student internships and new forms of scholarship, and achieved a high level of engagement and ownership.
Brain Awareness Week typically falls on our spring break, making it challenging to staff activities. We also realized it would be beneficial to do outreach throughout the year. Because we spend significant time training our volunteers, having numerous events throughout the year better utilizes their talents.
Additionally, we wanted to build relationships with the kids through repeated experiences — not “one-and-done” types of events because it allows us to do pre- and post- assessments of content knowledge, application gains, and their interest in pursuing neuroscience or other STEM careers.
Taking it a step further, we created a “Grow-Up and Grow-Out with Us” curriculum that reconnects us with students as they move through elementary, middle, and high school. Our program has been doing consistent sets of activities for over five years, and we are seeing second and third generation contacts with students over time.
The UNE Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences draws volunteers from our six different colleges and various student clubs.
Each student brings unique talents and experiences that are invaluable in designing and delivering content. For example, an undergraduate dual major in biology and education helps us align activities with the latest science education standards, while a fourth-year medical student brings clinical perspectives that crystalize connections between science and people who face brain and nervous system diseases.
Volunteers, faculty, and staff meet regularly to plan for upcoming events, provide feedback, and work towards continuous improvement. Peer-mentoring happens frequently as more experienced outreach volunteers help new recruits become comfortable speaking to various groups.
We reward our volunteers through certificates, thank you notes, and letters of recommendation that document their commitment to the program.
Most volunteers feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in what they have helped create, and they love the interactions with the K-12 students, parents, and teachers. Ultimately, this enthusiasm helps recruit new students each year, and some volunteers work with us through four years of undergraduate studies and an additional four years of a professional program.
Flexibility in our program delivery has been important. School systems face budget and transportation challenges, so offering activities in schools, community locations, or UNE increases participation.
We focus on flagship events throughout the year that are less than a 45-minute drive from our campuses. Notably, in the 2015/2016 fiscal year, we hosted the:
- iXplore STEM Summer Program
- Early College Program
- Second Annual Maine SfN Brain Bee
- Second Annual Maine Science Festival
- Third Annual Brain Fair
Through a consistent presence in our community, the number of site visits we conduct and school districts we interact with has drastically increased from our first talks and career day activities.
Ultimately, our goal is to branch out through additional members of the Maine SfN chapter, establish partner collaborators, and reach all of Maine to promote brain awareness.
Adapted from the presentation, Expanding Chapter Horizons: Connecting Local and International Communities.