The Discipline of Giving Back: Scientific community service opportunities at Yale

Alex Kazberouk | February 26, 2009

New Haven schoolchildren watch a DEMOS volunteer at an assembly. Yale science outreach opportunities reach people of all ages, from kindergarten to adult.

Yale students get their fill of science from spending time in lab, attending lectures, and poring over problems sets into the late hours of the night (or early hours of the morning, as may be the case). It may seem that dreaming of biochemistry pathways and organic chemistry molecules might be enough for most undergraduates.

Yet for many students, it is not enough to receive a superb science education; they also gladly aid in giving one to those in the New Haven community.

By combining community service, a science education, mentorship, and simple genuine fun, organizations such as SMArT, Demos, Synergy, and Science Saturdays connect undergraduates with students in schools in and around New Haven.


SMArT (Science and Math Achiever Teams) pairs undergraduates passionate about science or math with elementary and middle school students. The college students work with fifth, sixth, seventh, and eigth graders for one semester to help them complete an independent project.

The younger students choose a scientific topic to investigate, using resources they would not normally be able to access. With defined goals, a fun project, and mentorship from a Yale student, students come away seeing that there is more to science and math than memorizing material in the classroom.

During the semester, the volunteers and their students also attend at least one field trip. The semester culminates in a “Science Expo,” where volunteers and their students present their findings and experiences. The result is a program that is educational, rewarding, and interesting for both the mentor and the student.

Demos: Exhibitions and Explosions

A more volatile variety of science comes through in Demos, a program designed to show elementary school students that science can be fun, hands-on, and downright explosive.

Founded in 1986, the program uses demonstrations to foster an interest in science among younger children, motivating them to continue a science education in secondary and post-secondary schooling.

Over fifty Demos volunteers are involved in the classroom programs, presenting an interactive curriculum to third, fourth, and fifth graders on a weekly basis. The Demos Assemblies, which run up to 45 minutes, are shows complete with liquid nitrogen, dry ice, explosions, and excitement performed in front of large crowds of elementary school students. Demos also has an inflatable planetarium that is used for fascinating displays and presentations.

Synergy: From Theory to Practice

Synergy is a newly organized program designed for older students. Targeting an audience of high school students, the program aims to make science more accessible by tying the theory taught in schools to actual research done by Yale undergraduates.

Yale students who have done or are doing lab work present both the underlying theory behind their research and their findings to classes of high school students, making sure to connect their work to the relevant high school curriculum.

The high school students develop a good rapport with undergraduates who are only several years older. Additionally, the Yale students cultivate valuable presentation skills and develop their ability to explain their research to an audience less versed in the sciences.

By bridging the gap between theory and practical applications of research, Synergy conveys a message that a career in science and research can be relevant and rewarding.

Science Saturdays: Going Beyond the Gadgets

Another recent initiative, Science Saturdays, connects science to school-age children of all grades and interests, with lectures mixed in with hands-on demonstrations. Saturday mornings at Davies Auditorium begin with about an hour in which kids explore toys and gadgets, including heat-sensitive paper, bouncy balls, levitating magnets, and color-changing beads.

These demos, run by undergraduate and graduate volunteers, are designed to be fun; however, behind each toy and gadget is a basic scientific principle to be understood. Younger kids enjoy the demonstrations, while older ones enjoy the explanations of what actually causes the dramatic displays.

After the demonstrations, a Yale faculty member gives a lecture accessible to the children and their parents, with a new speaker and topic every week. Past topics have included Segway scooters, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scents, and viruses. This theoretical counterpart exposes students to a scientific field made exciting by enthusiastic lecturers and extensive use of props.

Other Opportunities

In addition to these structured programs, there are many other ways for scientifically-inclined Yale students to help the community. Yale’s Peabody Museum provides a vast array of options for those interested in helping out in just about any field.

Volunteer staffers and mentors are needed year-round, with programs such as Dinosaur Days (a paleontology extravaganza with a fossil dig, lectures, and bone cataloguing), A Peabody Halloween (a special on reptiles, amphibians, and spiders), and Summer Youth Programs. Public lectures and events hosted by various science departments at Yale also need undergraduate support to run smoothly.

On the whole, Yale offers a multitude of resources to students who wish to combine science with community outreach. Given the need for scientists and engineers and the deficiencies of many science programs throughout the country, Yale students are doing what they can to pique the interest of future scientists by making science understandable, exciting, and relevant.

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