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Carolina grad students bring science to the community

More than a dozen of Tar Heels are working to bring the wonders of science to children in the community through the graduate student-run organization Science in the Stacks. The group partners with North Carolina libraries to teach science lessons through a mix of in-person and virtual demonstrations.

A graphic with cartoon science icons.

As a doctoral student in chemistry, Allison Smith is working to make discoveries in Carolina’s research labs, but that isn’t the only place she’s using her scientific knowledge to improve the world.

The third-year doctoral student is the president of Science in the Stacks, a group of Tar Heels looking to bring the wonders of science to children in the community. The graduate student-run organization partners with North Carolina libraries to teach science lessons through a mix of in-person and virtual demonstrations.

With nearly 20 graduate students from various STEM departments planning and leading the demonstrations, the group is aiming to do more than just teach science, Smith said. They’re showing children what real-life scientists look like and hope to inspire the next generation.

“The students have the opportunity to learn some pretty neat science from a diverse group of young scientists, which helps to break down stereotypes about what a scientist looks like,” Smith said. “We hope they are having fun with science and realizing that anyone can be a scientist and that science is all around them.”

Learn more about Science in the Stacks from Smith below

What is the mission of Science in the Stacks?

Science in the Stacks is a graduate student-run organization at UNC that aims to promote scientific exploration to children of all ages. For the past eight years, Science in the Stacks has partnered with the Chapel Hill Public Library to share our love of science through monthly events at the library.

Each month, we focus on a new scientific phenomenon and present it through kid-friendly demonstrations or activities and a short talk. Partnering with our local library has given us the perfect venue to share our passion for science with children and the public, as well as practice our own science communication skills. Within the past year, we have also begun expanding our program to counties outside of the Triangle, including some programming with Lee and Chatham counties.

What do you hope the graduate students involved in the organization gain from this experience?

We hope that graduate students first and foremost walk away with the knowledge that they are fostering an appreciation for science in the next generation and giving back to their community. Additionally, the science communication skills that graduate students hone while crafting these presentations for kids and the giving and receiving of critical feedback in order to explain some higher-level concepts in a digestible way for children will certainly help them in communicating their own science to the general public or out-of-field professionals throughout their careers.

How has the pandemic changed your organization? Why was it important for you to continue the Science in the Stacks mission during the pandemic?

With the onset of the pandemic, we first transitioned to making monthly YouTube videos rather than live presentations. Within the past year, this has since transformed into live virtual presentations, as well as masked in-person presentations indoors and outdoors for the libraries we are working with.

Volunteers have had to be incredibly flexible in deciding program format on a month-to-month basis with the omicron variant, and it has been really wonderful to see how enthusiastic and flexible everyone has been about continuing the program.

It was especially important to us to continue in our mission of fostering a love of science in younger generations despite the pandemic’s challenges because both students and parents were under a significant amount of added stress. It’s our hope that having a chance to explore science topics and interact with us was a positive supplement to the struggles of online schooling.

Learn more about Science in the Stacks