Program helps students see SIGNs of a career path in the sciences

Small groups of community college students from southern California have traveled 2,500 miles northward during the past four summers to explore whether science careers might be right for them.

The students spend 11 days at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There, they study and learn about climate change in the North and how it influences their own communities.

Katie Spellman, an IARC research assistant professor, shared some lessons learned from the effort during the 2019 American Geophysical Union meeting Dec. 9-13 in San Francisco.

The students attend Santa Ana Community College (SACC), located just south of Los Angeles. Spellman said their time in Alaska helps them see how they might pursue careers in science, even when most scientists don’t look or talk like them.

The program began when people from SACC and the UAF Admissions Office approached Spellman to ask if scientists could work with first-generation community college students interested in studying science, technology, engineering or math at a four-year college. Spellman replied, “Sure, our team at IARC just got a grant to engage underserved communities in climate change learning and research.”

Spellman and her team, which included Crystal Castillo of SACC, designed a full research experience for science, technology, engineering and math students. With funding from NASA, the program draws on both the agency’s research and protocols used in the ongoing Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program. So, at UAF, the title became Arctic and Earth SIGNs (STEM Integrating GLOBE and NASA). At SACC, it’s called the Summer Research Intensive.

The students work directly with scientists on research teams. They communicate science, do field work and analyze data. They all present their work at professional science meetings.

“Working alongside all those scientists and realizing how passionate they are about the things they do just made me feel like I fit in. Being able to share our results was the most exciting part.”

said a student in an anonymous evaluation completed after the program.

Spellman, who grew up in Alaska, wants to catalyze science at UAF to empower youths and help them develop science workforce skills needed to study the rapidly changing climate.

The close of each year’s session is bittersweet as Spellman, along with colleagues Elena Sparrow and Javier Fochessato, exchange hugs with the students on the steps of UAF’s Akasofu Building and wave goodbye.

“The experience of pushing yourself hard for the 11 days we were gone showed me how much more I was capable of,” another student said in an evaluation. “It revealed to me how I can be an active participant in this world.”