by Francisca Concha-Ramírez
I was browsing twitter yesterday and noticed that Letters to a Pre-Scientist has started to recruit scientist pen pals for the 2018-2019 school year. Having participed before and loved it, I decided to write a little bit about my experience. Looking through my emails to see when I had participed, I realized it was for the 2015-2016 school year! A long time ago, but hopefully the spirit and experience has not changed much.
Letters to a Pre-Scientist (LPS) is a program that connects scientists from all over the world with middle-school students in the United States (I wonder if there is a similar initiative in other parts of the world, for now I haven’t been able to find any). It was founded in 2010 by Macon Lowman and Anna Goldstein, after the former became a 6th grade teacher in an under-resourced county. Goldstein helped her set up a network of scientists to be pen pals with their students, and the program was born (you can read more details about their history here).
From their own website:
We help students form friendships with scientists from around the world. Our program is a cross-curricular experience where students learn science while improving their reading and writing skills and broadening their understanding of world geography and culture. We believe that every student is a pre-scientist, and we aim to give them the tools they need to continue their education.
At the core of our mission is a desire to see students of all races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds succeed in their science education. For this reason, we focus on bringing our program to schools with a high proportion of students from low-income families.
I found out about the program while I was doing my Masters, and immediately loved the idea. In my opinion, it has the great advantange of not only bringing kids closer to science (and scientists), but it also paints scientists in a new light through kid’s eyes. In my letters with my pen pal we did not talk only science, we also told each other about our families, friends, and hobbies. I think it really helps the kids see scientists as normal people, going beyond the “genius” stereotype that sometimes permeates media and culture. I also love how they refer to the kids as ‘pre-scientists’, supporting the idea than anybody can become a scientist.
Back when I learned about LPS I lived in Chile, but that was not an impediment for me to sign up. As they said in my welcome email, there are only two requirements: write letters to your pen pal, and send them in time. There have been some changes for the 2018-2019 period:
All scientists have to complete a 1-hour training video, which will provide resources for writing age-appropriate letters, ideas for what to discuss with your pen pal, a guide to navigating potentially difficult situations, and more. I believe this is a new addition to the program and this year will be the first time they do this.
The form to sign up was much more complete this year than I remembered. They asked about my hobbies, and the languages I would feel comfortable communicating with my pen pal in. This seemed like a very nice addition.
On my first time I got matched with Miguel, a 5th grade boy who wanted to learn about space. My distance to the US made the mailing process a bit slow, but luckily LPS provided links to upload a digital copy of your letter, so your pen pal could get it at the same time that their classmates, even if the actual physical letter had not arrived yet. And yes: every kid in the participating classes gets a pen pal! The organizing team was also always super helpful, they quickly responded my email and they were always sending reminders/links to upload letters to make sure all the kids get their letters on time.
Something that worried me back then was that the organizers asked scientists to attach stamps and envelopes to their letters, if possible, to make it easier for the kids to reply. Sadly, being in Chile it was not possible for me to send US stamps. Now that I live in Europe I will have the same problem. However, this time I found out that you can donate/sponsor the program to support a pre-scientist’s materials! This makes me very happy and if you enjoy the initiative I would recommend considering a donation.
Below is a copy I found of one of my letters, so you can get an idea of the level. Getting letters from my pen pal was very exciting and it always put a big smile on my face. I hope he felt the same way when he got mine. The questions kids make can be very surprising, and trying to put an answer in simple terms that they can understand is an excellent exercise for anybody interested in sharing their research. I absolutely recommend participating in this program!