Youth Engagement at ¡Explora!

Natalie Rogers November 21, 2016

Explora, with support from the NM EPSCoR-funded New Mexico Informal Science Education Network (NM ISE Net), hosts a free Teen Science Café (TSC) about once a month to encourage teen interest in and engagement with STEM. Local scientists or engineers are invited to present their research in a teen-friendly way – through hands-on activities and in-depth discussions. The TSC events are attended by a variety of teens including the Explora Youth Interns. The interns are low-income, underserved youth, and they enjoy the opportunity to learn about scientific research happening here in New Mexico.

EPSCoR scientists have presented timely energy research, often exposing the teens to these energy topics for the first time. In June, EPSCoR scientist Dr. Laura Crossey presented on geology and geothermal energy, and in July, Dr. Becky Bixby presented on algae and bioalgal energy development. The July TSC was hosted at UNM and included a tour of one of the algae research labs by John Roesgen. Teens observed and classified algae samples collected from the UNM duck pond, and toured a lab to see innovative approaches to culturing algae for biofuels. Eight of Explora’s Youth Interns attended the presentation and were so interested, the summer-end Youth Intern trip explored the topic further.

The Youth Intern Program (YIP) trip is for the rising seniors in the program to help them learn about STEM college and career opportunities. With additional EPSCoR funding, this year’s trip took seven YIP seniors and two Explora staff to visit EPSCoR scientist Dr. Omar Holguin at NMSU to learn more about bioalgal energy development. The teens were intrigued by the prospect of using algae for fuel, with one intern saying, “Before this trip, I was not aware that algae, or other biofuels, could be a replacement for us, and that it can have the same power as the fossil fuels.” In addition to learning about algae, the teens gained a deeper understanding of how research is conducted and what it would be like to work in a laboratory. One of the interns especially enjoyed the lab tour “because it accurately represented my vision of what a lab should be” while other interns were completely enthralled and “could envision this as a future career” because “it would never be boring, and you’d always gain knowledge.”

To further engage the interns in New Mexico’s many STEM environments, the group also visited White Sands National Monument to learn about conservation and land management, the New Mexico Museum of Space and History, the New Mexico Tech Mineral Museum, and received a behind-the-scenes tour of Museum of Nature and Science in Las Cruces. Over the four-day trip, the interns interacted with a variety of scientists and STEM professionals in different environments which expanded their understanding of what STEM is and how it is, and will continue to be, an important part of their lives.