This year, Society Advocate Mark Vondracek is working with students at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. In 2014, Mark was a finalist in the Global Teacher Prize. Society for Science & the Public caught up with him and asked about his progress:
Why did you choose to become part of the Society’s advocate grant program?
When I began teaching 20 years ago, I noticed a near absence of students of color in advanced physics and math classes, such as calculus-based physics. While completing graduate school in physics in the largest physics department in the country, I only met one African American graduate student.
As in any field of study, I personally feel, as do most people in STEM I know, that diversity in thought, experience, and background is vital when trying to solve the most complex problems. Such diversity gives individuals different lenses through which they see life and, in our case, nature itself, as well as different ways of thinking about issues and problems. When you look at most research groups in academia, they tend to be built by having people with knowledge in different fields because so much cutting-edge research involves topics that overlap the traditional disciplines.
How did you first become interested in STEM?
When I was in high school, I never heard of the Science Talent Search or other competitions. My school had no research program and my teachers did not have research backgrounds. Had there been opportunities, I absolutely would have enjoyed this prior to going to college. I have been determined to get any student of mine working on something if they have interest in research, any other type of science activity, or contest. I sponsor as many as seven different teams and activities.
According to my parents, I have been asking about the world and how things work since elementary school. I more or less knew I wanted to study physics at some level when I just started middle school. I am not sure where this came from since no one in my family was in the sciences, let alone had college degrees. But as far back as I can remember, I have simply had a fascination for STEM.
What is your advice to young people interested in science and math?
For anyone of any age and background, as time goes on there have been and will continue to be more and more opportunities to be involved in STEM and to “get your hands dirty” actually doing science. I am happy the Next Generation Science Standards are bringing attention to the need for more active participation of students working with the process of science. We learn by doing, regardless of the field. And if you are curious about something, you are able to easily find information about it, as well as more likely to actually work on it. Bug your teachers, parents, or neighbors you might know who have access to information, labs, or knowledge about how STEM work is done, and get involved if you have an interest!
About the Advocate Grant program:
The Advocate Grant program is designed to provide support to underrepresented and socioeconomically challenged students who have conducted scientific or engineering research projects, and encourage them to take the next step in the process by submitting their research to a scientific research competition. The program provides a $3,000 stipend to an individual (such as a teacher, counselor, or mentor) who agrees to serve as an advocate for a group of three to five underrepresented students. The individual agrees to support the students by prompting and communicating to them about possible competitions and relevant deadlines, and supporting the gathering and writing of the required elements of an application.