Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December Volunteer of the Month: Stephanie Rodriguez

Written by Peggy Ni - YSP Volunteer

December Volunteer of the Month: Stephanie Rodriguez

Stephanie is a third year Ph.D. student in the Immunology Program. Her contributions to YSP are significant; she was an inspiring tutor for Summer Focus, she was an integral part in launching teaching kits for YSP, and she is also transitioning as the new Student Director.

Peggy Ni: What are the main duties of being the YSP Student Director?

Stephanie Rodriguez: Mostly you're the tying hand between all the different facets of YSP. Since everything is volunteer-based, it would be very easy for things to be really disjointed … and so as the coordinator the main job is to understand what every aspect is doing and how each fits together and make sure that all the parts work.

PN: So, a lot of administrative things?

SR: Yeah, being the go-to person in case faculty have questions about YSP or different organizations are interested in working with YSP. Instead of contacting all the volunteers, it's easier to go through one centralized person.

PN: Why did you decide to accept this position?

SR: YSP was one of the reasons I wanted to come to WashU to begin with, so my first year I just got as involved as I could. The more involved I became, the more I enjoyed it. And I like knowing what's going on with all of the different programs because I think they're all equally wonderful. It seemed like a really awesome way for me to be able to stay involved in all the programs. And, it gives me an opportunity to focus more on some things that are more personal to me but still be able to participate in all of them.

PN: You said all components and programs of YSP are equally wonderful, but could you describe some that you are most excited about?

SR: I think it's easiest to be excited about the Summer Focus Program because that's when you have the most interaction with our target audience – the students. These high school students get so excited about science and you can see them progress from week 1 to week 8. So I think that's the program that gets people the most excited, but I've been working a lot with TRP and the teaching kits. And the more I work with those programs, the more I see just how useful things like that are; you can see how important resources are for the teachers or all the hurdles they have to jump through to get these exciting things to their high school students. It's pretty fun to try to think what would get a high school student excited if you were going to bring in a demo to their classroom.

PN: Could you describe some topics that these teaching kits cover? I feel like it's one of the less publicized aspect of YSP.

SR: It is a new development that we started to initiate. At first it was just a bunch of volunteers brainstorming things we thought would be fun to do, things that would be easily accessible. So we started out with DNA extraction from fruit, and that's a pretty standard experiment. Lots of students have done it. And our challenge was to figure out a way to get the resources in a form that was sustainable so that classrooms that maybe didn't have a refrigerator to keep the strawberries could still do these experiments. We were able to work out using preserved fruit instead of fresh fruit. It's all those little things that we didn't realize would be hurdles! We like to keep them within household items; students really can relate to that. Science you can do in your kitchen is kind of fun because science often seems like one of those things you can't wrap your head around. The DNA extraction and surface tension [using soap and pepper] are two kits that we have and they're working out pretty well. And, they have DVDs in them that explain how the experiments are supposed to work. We're actually getting ready to load them on YouTube so that we can disseminate them more broadly. In the works now are making a battery out of lemons … and there are some volunteers working on kits involving osmosis and also some more physical science (wave motion and pendulum action). And we're also working in collaboration with a TRP Program teacher to develop a kit for environmental science about soil and water purity and the different properties of soil that make it useful for some plants.

And, as a group of volunteers, we're just thinking about what's cool. But what we want to be thinking is what's most useful to the St. Louis Public School system. Something we want to do is try to tailor these kits to Missouri curriculum standards so that it will be easier for teachers to implement these kits in their classrooms. So we try to ask teachers during the summer who participate in TRP, "What are the most difficult concepts you have engaging your students on, what are the most boring or the least fun things you have to do every year?" And then we as creative scientists can figure out a way to address those in a more fun way than a textbook.

PN: Could you talk about what some of the biggest challenges you foresee for YSP in the upcoming year?

SR: Our biggest challenge right now is funding. We were fortunate to have a large grant with HHMI, and now that's running out. We have a lot of applications with private and national organizations, and I think we're a very unique program so we're competitive for these outreach-oriented funding opportunities. We need to start collating all of our evaluation materials and synthesizing how effective we've been, showing we're an organization worthy of their dollars. And then the next biggest hurdle, which I also think is a blessing, is that YSP is growing – more people who want to participate some way in YSP. This is the first year that YSP has participated in the SLPS [St. Louis Public School] Professional Development Day, and that day we were able to talk to every high school science teacher who teaches in St. Louis. So, we've increased the number of teachers who may want teaching teams to visit them, who may want to participate in TRP, who will encourage their students to participate in Summer Focus, and who will be asking to use these teaching kits that we develop for them. I think as our initiatives grow, demand also grows. I think our next big hurdle will be to maintain the quality of our outreach that we've been doing on a small scale as demand is growing. But, that's a great problem to have! The volunteers are excited and passionate, and if any organization can hone in the volunteer base to meet these demands, it's definitely YSP.


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