Letter Themes

Throughout the year, visit this page to find specific information about the theme of each letter round, including prompts and resources to guide your writing. You’ll also receive prompts via email each round.

Including content related to the theme in each letter is important because:

  • -These are the topics we have identified as important for every pair to discuss to accomplish our program goals.
  • -Themes help teachers plan for what to expect in your letters so they can use letter content to support their lessons. Your student will use your letter during class to complete an activity related to the theme before replying to your letter.
  • -In the unfortunate situation that your pre-scientist isn’t able to send you a letter one round, or you are having trouble connecting with your pen pal, themes provide suggestions about what to write about.

The prompts should guide one part of your letter, but aren’t meant to limit your creativity or prescribe your entire letter. The individuality of each letter is what makes this program special, and we encourage you to discuss topics beyond the themes to foster a connection with your pen pal and encourage them to explore their interests.

Important note: We’re still very much in the middle of a pandemic that is impacting everyone, some more than others. Please consider using a few lines of your letter to check in with your pen pal about how they are doing. Supporting students’ social emotional learning is a crucial foundation to build engagement in academics. Encourage your pen pal to share their thoughts, worries, questions and strategies for coping with you if they feel comfortable. Share yours as well.

Round 1: STEM Career Pathways

The topic for letter one is your STEM career path. In one or two paragraphs, explain your occupation in student-friendly language. For many students, this is the first time they are connecting science to a job! Students will share what you do with other students in their class. We aim for students to develop concrete examples of what “being a scientist” could mean, and help them see that there are many paths to become a STEM professional.

*Don’t try to address every question.

  1. Where do you work or study? Describe or include a picture. (ex. in the field, a lab, on a computer in an office, do you travel?) 

  2. Describe a typical day. (ex. work on a team, virtually, what tasks do you complete daily?) 

  3. How has your work been impacted by COVID-19?
  4. What type of science do you do? Explain. (ex. life, earth, physical, computer science)
  5. What’s the wow-factor? What stands out as the best or most exciting part of your job? (from your perspective or from the perspective of a middle schooler)
  6. Why is your work important? What bigger picture problem are you attempting to solve? How does what you are doing relate to everyday life?
  7. Why did you become interested in your work? How did you get to where you are today? Describe your “path to become a STEM professional?” (timelines are great here!)

*You’ll expand on higher ed in a future letter, so no need to go deep into schooling now.

The following is a list of external websites to guide students’ discovery of new science careers. We hope students not only learn about your career, but other STEM careers aligned with their interests. Feel free to browse and then suggest a career that might spark your student’s interest. Or, since many of these websites were made for students, feel free to select the one that seems most appropriate for your student and include the link in one of your letters. Encourage your pre-scientist to do research and report back to you in their reply!

Science Buddies: comprehensive list of careers, separated by type of science and written for a middle school audience

Inventing Heron: stories from real scientists, geared towards career exploration

McGraw Hill Education: The STEM Career Kids

Learn How to Become: focuses on careers in the life sciences, including salaries and projected job growth

National Career Service: substantial list of STEM careers

Kids Ahead: interviews with real scientists

Kids Science Challenge: interviews with scientists working in paleontology, seismology, microbiology, and mineralogy

Frontiers for Young Minds: a collaboration between scientists and young readers to publish accessible articles about recent STEM discoveries

Round 2: Higher Education Journeys

The topic for this round is your higher education journey! In one or two paragraphs, break down your path from high school to where you are today to help your pre-scientist realistically understand one way to “become a STEM professional when they grow up.” We believe reading about your journey will make “going to college” more real for your pre-scientist, even though we acknowledge every higher-education experience is unique. Consider including pictures of you in college, your mascot, campus, etc. to help your pre-scientist visualize a college experience. Students will be engaging in research about your college(s) before replying to your letter, so feel free to include a website for them to visit!

As you consider what to share this round, try to think back to your middle school self. Would hearing that you are in 30th grade have been motivating or intimidating? Would you have been able to understand a sentence with the word ‘postdoc’? In the past, some students have expressed being unsure of their ability to become a scientist after hearing about how some of you have been in college for 10+ years after high school. We encourage you to share your perspective about why higher education is exciting and how it is different from middle school. We also challenge you to define all college related vocabulary you use! Students may not have prior experience learning about different types of colleges or degrees, and this is a great opportunity to build their “college knowledge”.

*Don’t try to address every question.

  1. When did you start thinking about college? What were the first steps of your search?

  2. How did you decide where to apply? What to major in? What were your limiting factors?

  3. What were you excited or worried about before you started college? How were your expectations similar or different from reality?

  4. Describe your favorite part of being a college student or favorite class.

  5. How is college different from middle school? How is it the same?

  6. At any point during your higher ed journey, did you feel intimidated, like you didn’t belong, or unsure if you would graduate? Share how you pressed on and what you learned as a result.

  7. Have more than one degree or attend multiple institutions of higher education? Explain what they are and why you pursued them to help your pre-scientist understand the difference between community college, undergraduate, graduate school, postdoc, etc. Did you know you wanted to pursue graduate school when you began your college journey? If not, how did you decide it was right for you?

  8. What should a middle schooler be thinking about or doing now to set them up to be prepared to apply for college at the end of high school? What should they NOT be worrying about yet?

  9. Describe how higher education has opened up opportunities for you.

  10. Create a timeline with highlights from each year beginning with your college search to finding a job post college to show your higher education path.

Round 3: Overcoming Obstacles

The theme for round three is overcoming obstacles, which I think everyone would agree continues to be relevant as we navigate 2024! We often hear from our teachers that this round is most impactful for their students. At the end of last year, one teacher shared, “My students were VERY inspired by the overcoming of challenges that their scientists faced. My students were encouraged and felt more connected to their scientists.”

In one or two paragraphs, describe a time when you had to persevere in the face of challenge. Explain how that experience has helped you become a more successful STEM professional. Please interpret this prompt in a way that makes sense to you; it is intentionally vague. We acknowledge each person has faced unique professional and personal obstacles, and that the challenges you face may not be the same ones your pen pal has or will face. We also realize some obstacles are deeply personal, and may not be stories or topics you are comfortable sharing. If you decide to discuss a sensitive topic, we encourage your willingness to be open, and welcome questions that may come up!

This topic was selected because all students have and will face obstacles. We want students to understand that they are not alone, and to help them build a toolkit of strategies and examples they can pull from in the face of challenge. We also believe this topic will humanize STEM professionals and encourage connection between you and your pen pal. Being vulnerable and identifying commonalities (students will be replying with a similar prompt) can deepen relationships.

These prompts ask you to: acknowledge a hard situation, describe the steps you took (demonstrate your agency), then identify the lesson learned.

*Don’t try to address every question.

  1. Describe an obstacle you have faced while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. What strategies helped you navigate the tough time, and what did you learn about yourself in the process? It’s totally ok if this obstacle is ongoing. All of our students are still experiencing big deviations from normal as well, so they will likely be able to relate.

  2. Describe a critical moment when you realized a challenge you thought was previously impossible was, in fact, surmountable. What about your mindset shifted that helped you realize you could overcome the obstacle? What did you do as a result?

  3. Describe a situation when you became comfortable in place you felt you didn’t belong at first, or with people you thought wouldn’t accept you. How did you feel, what happened to allow you to overcome those feelings?

  4. Give your opinion: is it important to be able to persevere in the face of hurdles? Why? Is it ever better to not conquer a hurdle? If so, how do you know when to push forward and keep trying, and when to step back and move on?

  5. Reflect on your time as a middle or high school student. What aspect of adulthood were you most afraid about? Was your worry justified? How did you manage your worries? What did you learn about yourself?

  6. Tell a story of the most difficult thing you’ve ever accomplished. What made it so difficult, and how did you change or grow as a result?

Visit the Character Lab for resources on related character traits, such as grit.

Learn about Carol Dweck’s research on Growth Mindset.

Round 4: Reflect and Inspire

It’s time to write your final letter to your pre-scientist! Your pen pal will read this letter during the last Letter Opening Party of the year to close out the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program.

*Reminder: Do not share any contact information with your pen pal or encourage them to continue corresponding with you outside of the pen pal program.

The topic for round four is reflect and inspire! This theme is important because our program evaluation found that students who reported discussing their future with their pen pal more saw a bigger change in wanting to become a STEM professional compared to students who reported less discussion about their future with their pen pal. Additionally, our teachers are seeking an opportunity to facilitate program closure with their students.

This theme is intentionally more vague than the other three. We encourage you to trust your instincts and use what you know about your pen pal to determine the best way to bring closure to your relationship.

*Don’t try to address every question.

  1. Tell your pen pal what you find most special, cool, or interesting about them! Encourage them to continue fostering this skill, talent, or trait.

  2. What have you learned from your pen pal? What will you do with that new knowledge?

  3. What will you remember most about your experience writing to your pen pal?

  4. What hopes and dreams do you have for your pen pal? What do you wish for them?

  5. What professional or personal advice or words of wisdom can you share with your pen pal?

  6. How do you show yourself respect and care? How does practicing self-love help you succeed in your career? Suggest ways your pre-scientist could practice self-care.

  7. Share a mantra or positive affirmation you use when you are feeling down or discouraged. How does it help you improve your attitude?

  8. Share ideas for at-home summer fun! Include procedures for safe, at home science investigations, book titles they could check out from the library, or online recommendations such as YouTube channels to support summer learning.