In a classroom setting, student projects come and go. But how often does one come along that goes beyond the classroom to grow into a nonprofit that helps students across the United States meaningfully engage with STEM professionals?
Meet Letters to a Pre-Scientist, a national organization that connects 5th-10th grade classrooms from under-resourced school districts to a global network of science professionals through a unique — and a bit retro — approach: snail mail. “Snail mail is really special. It’s different, it’s unique. You don’t get a lot of snail mail anymore,” says Lucy Madden, founding CEO of Letters to a Pre-Scientist. The pen-pal approach has been central to the organization’s mission of broadening student awareness of what STEM careers, and STEM professionals, can look like.
The program was first created in founder Macon Lowman’s classroom in 2010. A sixth-grade science teacher in rural Windsor, North Carolina, Lowman had grown weary of the pitfalls for students attending a school in an under-resourced county, including limited exposure to STEM fields and potential STEM careers. Lowman paired up with co-founder Anna Goldstein, at the time a doctoral student in chemistry at UC Berkeley, who went on to play a critical role in creating the network of scientists who would volunteer to become pen pals to Lowman’s students.
After the program’s initial success in 2010, the years following brought increased interest from more teachers and scientists, and many new changes, including the addition of Lucy Madden to the team. Madden, a teacher in an under-resourced district in Durham, North Carolina, began hosting the program in her own classrooms, continuing to do so for four out of the five years she was in the classroom.
After the 2016–2017 school year, the organization leaders realized that functioning on a volunteer basis was not allowing the organization to reach its full potential. Madden went to graduate school to study education policy and management to learn how to scale Letters to a Pre-Scientist into a national and far-reaching nonprofit.
Less than a year after the organization achieved nonprofit status, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “Basically, since we were founded, we’ve been in the pandemic,” says Madden. This led to some experimentation: With delays in snail mail, the organization transitioned to email. The response to this was surprising, says Madden: “At the end of last year, we asked our students and our STEM professionals: If we were to continue, would you find value in going back to snail mail? Overwhelmingly, students, teachers and STEM professionals all wanted the snail mail back.” The organization found the response encouraging, and knew they were on the right path.
Whatever form the interaction takes, getting the right STEM professional for each student has remained key throughout. “From the start, we’ve always tried to make the pen pal of the student someone who has a career that the student expressed some level of interest in the topic that they work on,” says Madden.
In the early years of the program, organizers manually paired students with volunteers, a difficult yet manageable task given the smaller number of students being paired. Now, with over 20 classrooms and approximately 1,500 students participating, and more volunteers seeking to be pen pals than available students, that process has had to be re-examined. “One of our founders wrote an algorithm that we run in Python that matches all of our STEM professionals to our students,” says Madden. “The algorithm uses a few pieces of information to find the best match. We have a list of 20 STEM topics that are really broad, and we ask the STEM professionals to tell us the areas of expertise that they fall into in those topics, and we ask the students to tell us up to three of those topics that they’re really interested in.” The algorithm also takes into consideration other non–STEM related information, such as the person’s hobbies. “It essentially finds the best pair for each student,” says Madden.
Equally important, the organization knew, was finding the right STEM professionals and supporting them, so they could commit time to the program and engage with students effectively. “One challenge that we had a few years ago was that we would get a lot of excitement and then some [volunteers] wouldn’t follow up with their commitment,” says Madden. This resulted in students’ having to switch pen pals in the middle of the year, losing already established connections.
To address this problem, Letters to a Pre-Scientist implemented a mandatory one-hour training for all professionals wishing to volunteer. Part of the training includes templates, writing prompts for their letters, and Madden’s favorite, helping each professional with the challenge of explaining what they do in one sentence. The training has significantly reduced the number of volunteers who drop out, and has also created excitement around the pen-pal program. “The snail-mail aspect contributes greatly to the engagement, both from the STEM professionals and the students,” says Madden.
Moreover, as the organization primarily serves students from underrepresented backgrounds, Letters to a Pre-Scientist finds representation to be essential. As such, the program has done targeted outreach to organizations with diverse STEM professionals. “We want to make sure that we’re representing the identities that our students have,” says Madden. And, ultimately, it’s about fostering a sense of belonging in science among all participating students. “What I really believe this program can do for students is broaden what they think about when they think about STEM careers, and broaden who they think about when they think about STEM professionals.” Letters to a Pre-Scientist has made it clear that, sometimes, all it takes is a letter in the mail to spark inspiration and create opportunity.
Letters to a Pre-Scientist joined the community of Science Sandbox awardees in June of 2021.