Biology Graduate Students Reach Out

Madison House volunteers take time to mentor local high school students in science

Garcia working with local students on science fair projects

Garcia helping local students with science fair projects

Mentors play a key role in the career development of young adults. They serve as sources of advice, information, encouragement, and support to their mentees. In a climate where performance of U.S. teenagers in math and science trail their peers from many industrialized countries, mentors and advocates for youth in the sciences are in high demand.

The Youth Science Fair Mentoring Project is a program through Madison House, the University of Virginia community service center, which allows U.Va. students to volunteer their time at local Charlottesville schools to help students prepare for both their local science fair and the Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair.  Although the program has been successful, prior to last year it was composed solely of U.Va. undergraduate volunteers and was struggling to meet the demands of the local schools.

“I used this as an opportunity to get the graduate student body involved in the local community,” says M. Alex Garcia, a Biology graduate student and founder of the program’s graduate branch in 2007. Since accepting the position as the program’s Graduate Liaison, she has more than doubled the participation of U.Va. students in the program. 

“I chose this particular project because I was made aware of the need for more volunteers. I also feel strongly that kids need to get engaged in science early on. If they are presented with science as something fun and exciting, they are much more likely to stick with it. It is true, too, for kids who might otherwise have an aptitude for science to get turned off by traditional classroom teaching methods which may make the subject seem dull and dry.”

Garcia and her team of graduate student volunteers visit Buford Middle School three times a week to assist with science projects and to serve as role models to 20-30 students.  Depending on the day and the number of volunteers, students sometimes receive group mentoring or one-on-one assistance with their projects. Garcia and her team also fill in for undergraduate volunteers at other local schools during the Christmas break when the undergraduates have left for holiday and seasonal breaks.

“This is one of the nice things about incorporating graduates into the program - we are here all the time,” says Garcia who considers winter break to be “crunch time” for getting science projects finished for the local science fairs.

Other graduate mentors for the program include Ashli Moore (Biology) and Olivia Mullins (Biology), as well as graduate student volunteers from the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Programs (BIMS).