Inspiring and training the next STEM generation

Editor’s note: This post by Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer originally appeared in the DOE “STEM Rising” blog on March 30, 2018. Subscribe to “STEM Rising” from the DOE website.

Nigel Lockyer

What is the universe made of? How does it work? How did it begin, and how will it end?

For centuries, these questions have fascinated kids and adults alike. For over 50 years, the employees and users of Fermilab have worked together to study these questions through the science of particle physics — and to engage in education and outreach activities that inspire and train the next generation.

Fermilab has had a strong commitment to community outreach and STEM education since its founding in 1967. Our lab was innovative from the beginning, founding the Summer Internships in Science and Technology program in 1970 with the goal of increasing the participation of underrepresented groups and women in science and engineering. Today Summer Internships in Science and Technology — the longest operating internship program in the DOE lab system — remains a vital part of Fermilab’s suite of programs for high school through graduate school students aimed at increasing diversity in STEM.

Our lab took on a national leadership role in science education in the 1980s under second director Leon Lederman, who launched new lab programs and regional science education institutions and fostered a true cultural commitment to STEM outreach at Fermilab.

Dr. Lederman is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a fierce advocate for better science teaching. During his decade as director, he initiated the Saturday Morning Physics lecture series at Fermilab and founded the nonprofit organization Fermilab Friends for Science Education that continues to support education and outreach programs at the lab today. Beyond the lab, he co-founded the residential Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and the Teacher’s Academy for Mathematics and Science in Chicago.

Today, thanks to our founding directors and to the hundreds of employees, users and community members who continue to expand, innovate and guide our activities, Fermilab’s outreach programs reach 100,000 people in person every year and millions more online.

Over my last five years as Fermilab’s director, I’ve been proud to support and engage with our lab’s varied outreach activities, including:

  • Field trips for K-12 students that brought 9,000 students out to Fermilab last year. Our unique approach to this program brings teachers out for training programs before the field trip, so that the trip and what they learn at Fermilab is integrated into the classroom.
  • Classroom presentation programs that send dozens of scientists and engineers out to regional schools each year, reaching more than 22,000 students in 2017.
  • On-site hands-on science center that is the hub for our teacher training programs, Science Adventure programs, Scout programs and walk-in visitors. Together, all of those programs served 5,500 people last year.
  • Partnerships with local organizations on events aimed specifically at increasing diversity in STEM careers, including last year’s Dare to Dream event for Latina girls and a Saturday STEM event for Girl Scouts, and events organized by the lab such as the High Energy, High Ambitions conference for Chicagoland high school students.
  • Annual open houses, public lecture series and other special outreach events that reached over 20,000 people last year, mostly from the Chicagoland area.

These programs and others have inspired and trained generations of STEM professionals, which has had a hugely positive impact on Fermilab’s relationship with its local communities. When I meet new people from the area around our lab, I hear over and over again how they first encountered Fermilab through a school field trip and about their memories of that experience—even if it was 20 or more years ago.

As science doesn’t stay static for long, neither do our STEM outreach programs. As Fermilab moves into a new era as the host for an international mega-science project to study elusive particles called neutrinos, we are also developing a new vision for the future of our outreach portfolio, seeking to make sure that we continue to inspire and train the next generation of STEM professionals in our local community and in partner countries.