For the past few years, we have had the incredible fortune of attracting more STEM professionals who want to be pen pals than we have the capacity to match with student pre-scientists, hence, the waitlist! In fact, during the 2018-19 school year we had as many STEM professionals on our waiting list as we had participating in the program (~850)! What a great challenge that so many STEM professionals are ready and willing to volunteer their time to inspire the next generation of scientists – the last thing we want is for our dedicated volunteers to feel their time and mentorship is not wanted or needed!
We’ve been working hard to increase the annual number of teachers and students we support; we doubled in size from 2018-19 to 2019-20! And yet, hundreds of our amazing 2019-20 volunteers received word in early October that they have not been matched with a pre-scientist pen pal.
So how do we decide which STEM professionals get matched?
We use a custom built computer algorithm (written by one of our amazing volunteers, Judith Zimmerman) to create pre-scientist-scientist matches. Impact on students is our top priority, therefore the program is structured to choose the best match for every student by using pre-scientist’s science interests and hobbies to drive the matching process. By pairing students with someone in an area the student is interested in, we increase the likelihood our pre-scientists discover a new career they may want to pursue in the future.
The breakdown of student interests changes each year, and is difficult to predict. A mismatch between the interests of pre-scientists and STEM professionals means a surplus or deficit of volunteers with expertise in a particular topic. This means there is nothing a STEM professional could do better or differently to get matched. For example, in 2019-20, 434 of our pre-scientists indicated interest in space, and we had only 235 scientists indicate expertise in space (every space professional got matched). Conversely, 937 STEM professionals indicated expertise in the human body, but only 238 pre-scientists selected the human body as one of their top three science interests on their survey.
We are grateful for every STEM professional who chooses to volunteer with us, and understand it is disappointing to complete training and then not be selected as a pen pal. We aim to provide outreach opportunities to allow every trained volunteer to support students in some capacity, and those on our waitlist could get matched during the year if a scientist drops or a new student joins a class. We are thrilled about the number of scientists ready to mentor future STEM professionals, and we have ambitious growth goals over the next few years! Stick with us!
See the graphs below for details about our scientist’s areas of expertise and pre-scientist’s science interests: