The Next Generation of Scientists, Science Communicators, and Science Educators: Youth Volunteers in Science Centers

Careers in science and engineering are growing rapidly with more than 9 million science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs expected to be added to the U.S. workforce between 2012 and 2022 and a half million information and communications technology jobs are expected to be added in Europe in the next ten years. Compared to other occupations, STEM careers are expected to grow faster and the wages in these areas are typically higher. Accompanying the need for scientists, there is a growing need for science educators and communicators who can support public understanding of complex science issues. Increasingly, citizens must make everyday decisions related to their health and safety (i.e., Hurricane Florence) and sort through complex information to participate in societal decisions. Nationwide shortages of science teachers continue to plague school systems. To address these future needs for scientists, science educators and science communicators, new strategies are needed to engage and interest youth in these fields of study. In this collaborative project, researchers took a different approach than is traditionally used to address future science workforce needs by examining the intersection of youth volunteer work at museums and their future career aspirations.

There is growing evidence that out-of-school STEM experiences shape an individual’s knowledge and skills in STEM. On average, Americans spend less than 5% of their time in school, making out-of-school science experiences important for developing science identity, self-efficacy and career interests. In their 2012 report, the National Governors Association stressed the role of informal science in “generating interest in science, stimulating inquiry through organized activities outside the classroom and exposing youth to the opportunities that STEM knowledge present.” The report stated that informal science experiences may improve student interest and confidence related to science, which may improve the number of students choosing to major in science and pursue science careers.

Across the United States, science museums increasingly offer volunteer positions to youth, allowing them the opportunity to work in a variety of educational programming or research experiences. For example, at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, there are 160 middle and high school volunteers who work side-by-side with museum educators and researchers educating the public about science, conducting research and designing science communication programs. What is not known is how these science experiences shape informal interests such as hobbies, inform career decisions, or alter the trajectories of science education experiences after high school. Of interest to this research team is whether or not these individuals might be our next generation of science teachers, science communicators, and scientists.

Research Questions
1. What reasons do youth report for participating in science museum volunteer opportunities while in high school? (Are there differences for youth who participate in animal-care related experiences, general program volunteer experiences, and science communication volunteer experiences?)
2. After participating in a science museum volunteer program, for those youth that go to college, what college majors do youth select? (Do youth who participate in different types of volunteer experiences select college majors in STEM fields, science communication or science education?)
3. After participating in a science museum volunteer program, do youth seek research experiences or internships in STEM fields as part of their college experience? (What types of research experiences do participating youth seek?)
4. What are the perceived impacts of youth volunteer experience on the development of leadership and communication skills?