STEM evangelists

Alumni clubs promote science and engineering education in their communities.

Apr 25, 2018
The MIT Club of Wisconsin holds a monthly STEM event.
Courtesy OF MIT Club of Wisconsin

STEM evangelists

Alumni clubs promote science and engineering education in their communities.

Apr 25, 2018

In 2008, the MIT Club of Germany helped send two secondary school teachers to MIT’s Science and Engineering Program for Teachers (SEPT). During the weeklong summer program on MIT’s campus, middle and high school teachers attend lectures by MIT researchers, try out the latest technology developed at the Institute, and talk shop with professors, students, researchers, and fellow teachers.

“They came back so excited and eager to do something for STEM teachers in Germany,” says club treasurer Stefan Weissflog, SM ’92. “So we decided to do something similar and make our Germany club a bridge between schools and science.”

Channeling the teachers’ enthusiasm, the club launched an annual weeklong conference in Erfurt called the Schule MIT Wissenschaft, or School with Science. (The name is a pun: “mit” means “with” in German.) Modeled on SEPT, the conference adopts the MIT mind-set of solving real-world problems and allows alumni to engage directly with Germany’s K–12 community. In the decade since its founding, it has attracted hundreds of secondary school teachers, and its featured speakers have included MIT faculty and Nobel laureates.

“In Germany, science is taught only discipline by discipline,” says Weissflog. “Our Schule is interdisciplinary. We have MIT scientists talking directly to teachers, who then carry over that MIT spirit of excitement to their students.”

Schule MIT Wissenschaft may be the Association’s largest club-organized volunteer event focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). But it is one of many around the world that harness both the Institute’s STEM expertise and the commitment of MIT alumni to public service.

“There’s a strong humanities aspect of STEM,” says Marcelo Montaniel, SM ’74, the vice president of K–12 initiatives for the Club of Dallas and Fort Worth. “We’re helping people learn about technologies that improve the lives of people and [lead to] the betterment of the world.”

COURTESY OF Club of Dallas and Fort Worth (stem)

Nearly every active MIT alumni club performs STEM-related service work, including the Dallas and Fort Worth club, which solicits MIT alumni judges for an annual science fair that attracts more than 200 middle and high school students.

“Promoting STEM is in our blood,” says Club of Wisconsin president Christie Lin ’11, SM ’12. “Especially if the events are hands-on and kind of nerdy.” The Wisconsin club organizes at least one STEM-focused event per month, and it created a new club position, director of volunteering and outreach, in 2014. The club had a strong presence at the 2017 Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, the largest annual aviation event in the world, which attracts more than 500,000 attendees.

The club’s director of volunteering, Russell Cuhel, PhD ’81, hosted an event at the convention that featured research conducted by MIT alumni, including hands-on demos, and alumni and high school students working together on drones. “Most importantly, it [showcased] STEM research on a community level,” says Lin.

Many alumni clubs in New England use their proximity to MIT faculty to attract attendees to events. The Club of New Hampshire, for example, hosts an annual MIT lecture at Phillips Exeter Academy. The 2017 lecture, which was free and open to the public and drew a primary audience of high school students, featured architecture professor John Fernandez ’85 and focused on environmental sustainability.

“If you pick the right topic and a speaker who can bring STEM to life, the students will show up,” says club president David Godfrey ’74. “Our goal is to open this up to as many young people as possible and really get them engaged in STEM.”

Other clubs farther from campus have used the SEPT program to send members of their community to MIT. The Club of Chicago has helped send two local high school teachers to the application-only program in the past two years.

“Our board members are always reaching out to the local high schools to raise awareness about SEPT and the opportunity it presents,” says club president Mehul Shah ’01. “SEPT is a firehose of education, and it’s our responsibility to share this with the teachers and administrators at our local schools.”

The Chicago club’s STEM efforts, which also include service work in underserved schools and communities, are fueled by equal parts civic and MIT pride. “I graduated from MIT but I’m also from Chicago, and to me, that’s just as important,” says Shah. “It’s not the MIT Club in Chicago. It’s the MIT Club of Chicago, and we need to share our knowledge with our community.”

And while Schule MIT Wissenschaft may be the standard-bearer for STEM volunteerism—it received a 2017 Alumni Association Great Dome Award for distinguished club service—the Club of Germany has plans to do more.

“Our goal is a regional Schule with one event in our 16 federal states,” says Weissflog. “In a nutshell, MIT is about changing the world, and these events help us do just that. MIT and STEM events are a match made in heaven.”