Michigan Science Center’s Explainers aims to encourage Detroit high schoolers to consider STEM

It’s not often that a high school job leads to a post-college career in science, but that’s about to change for Metro Detroit teens with the Michigan Science Center’s new Explainers program.

The Science Center was recently awarded a $75,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan to hire 15 Southeast Michigan high school students at $10 per hour to work as docents, helping visitors navigate the museum, leading floor demonstrations and more. It is the first program of its kind in the museum’s history. The pilot project focuses specifically on Detroit youth as they are the most underserved in the region with respect to attaining Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) skills.

“It’s a paid position that provides students with connections to STEM careers,” says Cassie Byrd, a molecular biologist and the center’s chief learning officer. “Even if they think they’re not interested in science, being STEM literate allows students to understand complex problems and find solutions. Plus, it’s just fun to work in a science center.”

The name “Explainers” reflects the idea that those who can explain a topic to someone else truly understand it. In addition to being an “explainer” of STEM concepts, MiSci’s youth docents will also be “facilitators of learning.” They will guide MiSci visitors in asking questions and discovering scientific phenomena by modeling how to engage in an active learning environment like a science center.

The pilot is modeled on similar programs in science museums across the country, including the original 1986 program from the New York Hall of Science and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, where Byrd worked previously. According to a 2015 article by the New York Hall of Science, more than 3,000 students have worked as Explainers at NYSCI since the mid-1980s, and of those students, 92 percent earned college and advanced degrees, compared to 39 percent peers of their peers in New York who didn’t work as Explainers.

This is a significant achievement, given recent data from the National Science Foundation. In 2017, the Foundation found that whites were more than nine times more likely to be employed in a STEM field than those who identified as black.

James Holly Jr., an assistant professor at Wayne State University whose work focuses on teaching educators how to engage urban youth in STEM fields, says the Explainers program is a good employment opportunity for students of color who have been marginalized.

“Some of the challenges this program can help address involve removing barriers for people of color and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds,” he says. “We need to ask, ‘What does it mean to empower a kid who's been disempowered?’ ”

The Science Center will begin accepting applications for the summer pilot program in the spring. If all goes well, Byrd hopes to secure funding for a year-round program.

Eligible Explainers can attend any high school — including homeschools — in Southeast Michigan, with a special emphasis on students who come from communities historically underrepresented in STEM fields and those with low socio-economic backgrounds, Byrd says. A team from the Science Center will review applications and hold interviews.

“We’re definitely going to look for a diverse crew: men and women, people of color, people from low socio-economic backgrounds and students not even interested in science,” she says.

A typical day for an Explainer will start with a morning session on professional development, followed by an assignment for the day, such as helping with a science demonstration or engaging with visitors throughout the museum. The day would finish with a final meeting to review the day’s tasks and decide which skills to focus on or improve next.

The program’s focus on creating a career pathway for students means the Science Center will bring in special guests and industry partners to connect students with potential internships and jobs. The goal is to funnel students into STEM careers after high school graduation while engaging the museum’s visitors — especially impressionable elementary and middle schoolers — along the way.

“I think that having a younger group of educators on the floor makes science more accessible for our younger visitors,” Byrd says. “There’s strong evidence that seeing a near peer in that kind of position is powerful because it helps students to see themselves in that position in the future.”

Overall, the Explainer program fits into the Science Center’s larger mission to inspire curious minds of all ages with STEM, both in its Detroit facility and in locations throughout the state.

“The Michigan Science Center is a hub for STEM education, and the Explainers program is one facet of that,” Byrd says. “We partner with local research institutions to provide STEM outreach, take science into the community with our Traveling Science Program, and participate in community festivals — it’s about presenting the idea that STEM is present in everyone's everyday life.”

This article is part of a series on STEM education in Detroit. It is supported by the Michigan Science Center. Read more articles in the series here.

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