Sharing the love of science with students in Rochester schools

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The three boisterous, highly imaginative middle school students knew exactly what area of science they wanted to study: robots.

But as they began planning a robot to enter in the Rochester Regional STEM Fair, each had distinct visions. One student wanted a fighting robot that could mirror human punches. Another proposed a robot that could do a slew of tasks — all at once. The third argued for a robot that would be a music-playing, cuddling "emotional support spider."

Portrait of Sydney Lundell holding the robot created with students at John Adams Middle School.
Sydney Lundell

Sydney Lundell, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, took the students' ideas in stride. Volunteering as an after-school science mentor at John Adams Middle School, she guided the group to come up with a unified idea that would be doable for the science fair.

"It was important to focus on a project they could succeed in building and coding," she says. "I wanted them to have that physical, 'I get this' sort of feeling."

Lundell was among more than 20 students from Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science who took a few hours away from their studies this year to serve as mentors in Rochester, Minnesota, middle and high schools; even more volunteered at the science fair. Their goal: to inspire interest in science, technology, engineering and math — known collectively as STEM — subjects. Bringing ideas from their own scientific expertise, the volunteers helped foster young students' projects — and often found themselves invigorated by the experience, too.

I absolutely loved it

"I started mentoring virtually during the pandemic, and I absolutely loved it," Lundell says. She and other volunteers connected with the mentoring opportunity through Oraculi, a non-profit organization that connects science mentors with middle and high school students in Rochester.

As a graduate student in the Mayo Clinic Motion Analysis Laboratory of Kenton Kaufman, Ph.D., Lundell conducts research on wearable sensors that analyze the gait of patients wearing prosthetic limbs. With her engineering background, she helped her middle school group focus their ideas for a robot. The students decided their robot would help humanity through an ability to replace a seeing-eye dog. ("Anyone who's ever done robotics knows that's basically an obstacle-avoiding robot where the robot looks for walls and moves away from them, so eventually you can make the robot go through a maze," Lundell explains.)   

The students built the machine with the help of Lundell, who introduced them to fundamental concepts in coding. The big reward came weeks later when the students tested their first bits of code and saw the robot move.

"For one of my students, you could tell that a whole new world had opened up for him about how to code. There was that spark — this is something he could do at home and explore himself," Lundell recalls. "And the group had a lot of kids coming up, asking them about their robot, and that was exciting for them too."

The students' enthusiasm was its own reward, but to Lundell's surprise, she was recognized for her efforts as the Rochester Regional STEM Fair Mentor of the Year. A few weeks later, she learned she also had won the Seagate Excellence in Science Mentoring Award, the highest honor for STEM educators involved in the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair. "She was nominated by Rochester Public Schools staff on account of her excellent interpersonal and technical skills," says Josh Halverson, director of the Rochester Regional STEM Fair.

The Seagate award came with a $1,000 prize and a $1,000 donation to Johns Adams Middle School. "I was just doing it because it was so much fun," Lundell says. "I still have no words for how grateful I am."

Sharing a scientific passion, getting others on board

For some, volunteering in the Rochester schools not only has been gratifying but it also has been a chance to gain additional executive experience. Cody Fisher, Ph.D., was involved with Oraculi until he graduated in May 2023 from Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Initially, he found that mentoring students enabled him to share his passion for infectious disease and immunology. He first engaged virtually as a mentor during the COVID-19 pandemic. The middle school students he matched with were interested in studying the efficacy of mask-wearing, and their experiments compared blowing out a lit candle at varying distances while wearing different types of masks.

Dr. Fisher went from mentoring to serving as an elected member of the board of Oraculi. In his role, he helped grow the number of volunteer mentors from the Mayo community.  

"We were able to recruit graduate students, post-doc fellows, pre-doc fellows and technicians from Mayo Clinic, as well as a handful outside of Mayo, as volunteer mentors for our program," says Dr. Fisher, who will soon begin the next stage of his career as a science policy fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, focused on combating antibiotic resistance. "I also worked with the rest of the board to discuss mentor training and session curricula, organizational goals and future plans for the organization."

Image of Heather Billings, Ph.D.
Heather Billings, Ph.D.

Although mentoring activities take place off campus, graduate school educators agree that working with school-aged kids can provide as many benefits for the mentors as it does for the mentees. "These experiences help scientists-in-training communicate more effectively, cultivate trust and respect, and assess the comprehension of others, all skills that will help them advance their own research careers," says Heather Billings, Ph.D., co-director of Mayo's Academy of Educational Excellence. Her office provides resources across Mayo’s schools to maximize the effect of mentorship during training and to prepare students to become the next generation of scientific mentors.

A feeling up of uplift

An image of Sachi Chaudhari.
Sachi Chaudhari

Students are quick to point out that even though mentoring takes time, the experience is worth fitting into a busy schedule. Sachi Chaudhari, a second-year medical student in Mayo's Medical Scientist Training Program that leads to a dual M.D.-Ph.D. degree, says mentoring was an important part of her year. She's interested in immunology and regenerative sciences research, with the goal of understanding cellular mechanisms of pathologies and creating immunotherapies. She helped middle schoolers understand the scientific method, ensuring they knew the process of designing, performing and analyzing the data of experiments.

She felt buoyed by the connections she developed with students and other mentors. "Volunteering at John Adams Middle School was a priority of mine that I really enjoyed. I attempted to attend the weekly sessions as much as possible, given the varying schedules of medical school," she says. "It was amazing to see the growth in students as they learned to become more independent and confident in their projects." Lundell agrees that experiencing science with students can be uplifting. It's also a nice change of pace. "Even just two hours a week," she says, "it's a great break from the science we do day to day."

—Kate Ledger