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Letters to a Pre-Scientist

How snail mail makes a difference

“I am very excited to be your pen pal for the 6th grade school year. I am also excited not to be called nerd when I send a letter like this,” were the first two sentences my 11 year old snail-mail pen pal wrote me in September 2019. Now the school year is over and the “Letters to a Pre-Scientist” (LPS) is finished. In this personal blog article, I wanted to share my experience with the program and hopefully inspire you to become a pen pal for the next school year! 

But let’s talk about the facts first: What is the “Letters to a Pre-Scientist” program?

The “Letters to a Pre-Scientist” program connects STEM professionals at any stage in their career  from all around the world with young students from high-poverty schools across America (read more about the challenges of low-income schools here). Many students in low income communities do not see themselves as future scientists, especially because scientists are generally seen as unapproachable. Many students don’t have the chance to meet a real scientist and thus their image is formed by what media presents them: weird looking people in long white lab coats, mixing chemicals together. And while this might fit to some of us, the students should learn that scientists are normal people with their own unique hobbies, ideas and struggles. 

How did it start?

The program was founded by Macon Lowman, a science teacher, and Anna Goldstein, a scientist in 2010. The program started off with 1 classroom and approximately 100 students. Only 4 years later it became a volunteering organization and 3 classrooms with 175 students participated. Over the years the program grew. This year (2019-2020) 1634 pre-scientists matched with their STEM pen-pals. 

What are you actually doing as a professional scientist during the program?

Well… you are sending snail mail to your matched pre-scientist for a whole school year. In total you are sending 4 letters and should also receive 4 letters in return. The program is very organized with reminders of when your last date is to send your letter, as well as writing themes for each round (career, college, overcoming obstacles and a theme selected by the students or teacher). Moreover, before writing your first letter you follow an online program that teaches you about the history of LPS, the importance of snail-mail, the situation in the high poverty schools as well as how to express yourself when writing science to young children.

However, not every participating STEM professional gets matched with a student, as the number of scientists normally exceeds the number of participating teachers and students. Further, the matches are done very carefully based on the scientific and non-scientific interests of the student.

Why is sending snail mail important?

I remember how exciting it was to receive an email or SMS when I was younger. Letters were just too common. Now, I think the opposite way. Each handwritten letter that I receive is like a small treasure I collect in a box at home. It’s not going into my mailbox to the other 5000 emails anymore. Each letter is unique. The program lists a few important points why handwritten letters are important for young students:

  • You are writing slower, thinking of each sentence you want to write, because you can’t simply delete your previous text without ruining your paper and thus students think more deeply about their text

  •  Students also tend to write longer letters and use more complex words compared to writing emails

  • As we are talking about high-poverty schools, not all schools can provide a PC for each student. However, a paper and a pen will always be there

And then there is the huge aspect of joy and excitement when finally holding the letter of your pen pal in your hands, that you have been waiting for. This experience goes both ways. A handwritten letters comes with a lot of emotions and individuality. The program even encourages you to leave ink stains or other “accidents” that happened on the paper, since it makes the experience more real and personal. Actually, the positive influence of sending and perceiving handwritten letters has been scientifically proven. Writing handwritten letters reduces depression and increases happiness. Receiving handwritten letters boosts your confidence and makes you feel loved. 

Does LPS help students to connect with science?

To give you the short answer: yes it does! LPS states that 71% of pre-scientists agree that having a pen pal helped them learn new science. As the program of this year just finished, a lot of success stories are shared on their social media platforms. Teachers are sharing the positive change of some student’s attitude towards a scientific career and the immense impact this program had on them. Many children see their matched scientist as a new role model. It’s not just about inspiring young students about a science related career, but also giving support in difficult times and explaining that any future career path is not always straight forward and easy. Everyone struggles on their way.

Interestingly, similar things are shared by the scientists. Connecting to a pre-scientist enables us to become a better communicator and role model. And with that we move on to my personal experience.

My personal experience

I learned a lot during the program and I really enjoyed it. I think I got as much out of it as my pen pal. 

I felt joy when writing the letters and I noticed putting a lot of thought in my texts. Once you wrote something wrong, you couldn’t go back anymore. I have to admit that writing a few pages of paper by hand took longer than expected. It really needed time dedication, but this made the experience so out-standing. I learned how to explain my PhD research to a child and I felt valued as a mentor. I also learned about the fears of the future career of my pen pal, who was already highly interested in science. By sharing my own struggles, I hopefully was able to take away a little bit of that fear.

 Many STEM professionals have to motivate their pen pal to talk about science and not get sidetracked by other subjects . Of course not every child is inspired by a career in a STEM related field. I didn’t had to inspire my pen pal. He told me in the second letter that he wants to pursue a PhD in theoretical physics, so we both talked enthusiastically about science in general. 

The words I will probably remember the most were a reply to a struggle I faced during my PhD, where I lost more than 2 months of work due to a small problem. My pen pal wrote:  “Thank you for sharing the challenge you faced. I have a similar one […]. Me and other people in my team (in World of Warcraft) were trying to come up with a plan to get into the next room in a dungeon. Two of us wanted one idea, and the other two wanted another. We were all arguing about whose plan was better. I tried to persuade one of the people who was on the “other side” of the argument to come here with proper reasoning. That worked so it was a three on one argument to the other person eventually gave up and joined “our side” of the argument.” 

I hope I was able to inspire a few fellow STEM professionals to join the Letters to a Pre-Scientist community and help to bring science closer to young students from high-poverty schools.

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