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July 2000

What makes SOARS a standout?

This year's SOARS protégés gather on the mesa. Front row (left to right): Jamila Greene, Bernice Rosenzweig, Mandy Szymczak, Waleska Rivera Ríos, Andy Church, Shaan Bliss. Back row (left to right): Yarice Rodriguez, Summer Sands, Monica Rivera, Kevin Green, Aisha Reed, Brandeis Hill, Brad Navarro, Theresa Johnson, Jonathan Vigh, Maribel Martinez, Preston Heard, Rynda Hudman, Sharon Pérez- Suárez, Sarah Tessendorf, Yasmin Rodriguez, Lori Levy, Darilis Suárez.

It's the personal attention, community building, flexibility, and multiyear support that make SOARS different from all the rest. That's the consensus of educators and administrators asked recently to place UCAR's Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Science and Research program in perspective as it enters its fifth year. There are other internship programs designed to interest students from underrepresented communities in academic and professional science, but none of our informants had heard of one that combined all the ingredients in the SOARS recipe.

SOARS supports students during the last two years of their undergraduate training and first two years of graduate school. UCAR has built partnerships with NSF, the Department of Energy (DOE), NASA, NOAA, and the UCAR university community to create a year-round program that includes a ten-week paid internship each summer at NCAR or another national lab. There are 39 students, known as protégés, enrolled this year; 23 of those are in Boulder this summer.

It takes a village

The number of mentors per protégé is one of the features that sets SOARS apart. Approximately 70 staff members, mostly at UCAR and NCAR but also at other participating national labs, are volunteering as either science research, scientific writing, or community mentors this year. There's a fourth mentor assigned to all incoming SOARS students: a peer who has been in the program for a year or more.

As a program coordinator in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences, Jewel Prendeville is familiar with many internship programs that do well if they can provide one mentor for many students. "In SOARS, the ratios are reversed: one student, many mentors," she notes. That really sets the program apart.

According to John Snow, the intensive mentoring does the students "a lot of good." Snow is dean of the College of Geosciences at the University of Oklahoma and a former UCAR trustee. He also worked with OU student Lacey Holland when she participated in SOARS. "I think the experience she had over three summers gave her a lot more professional poise and maturity," he says.

"SOARS is a learning community structured around the mentoring process," explains SOARS director Tom Windham. Many other programs do not have a full-time director whose role it is to conceptualize and facilitate the development of a community whose members are all learning from each other. A social psychologist by training, Tom has combed relevant research in search of ingredients that have proved significant in helping students from historically underrepresented groups succeed at higher levels. But the concept of a learning community is not a new one, and Tom readily cites the East African proverb popularized by Hillary Rodham Clinton that it takes a whole village to raise a child. In such communities, many people with different skills and wisdom take on roles corresponding to mentor and colleague/peer.

A flexible, student-centered approach

"Tom has shown a great deal of flexibility in allowing protégés to follow their own interests at their own schedules," says Prendeville. "He flexes the program to fit the student rather than forcing the student to fit into a narrow mold, and I think that's been very productive."

Tom explains that in contrast to traditional summer internships, where a student is asked to assist with an ongoing project, "SOARS invites protégés to come in and modify an existing piece of research so that their needs and their passion for the subject are embodied in that research." Science research mentors actively seek their protégés' input with that goal in mind.

At Tom's request, NSF and the other sponsoring agencies visit the program annually and receive a considerable amount of feedback from protégés and mentors. That level of interchange between participants and sponsors is rare. Because feedback is so important to the SOARS model, the SOARS staff builds in midcourse appraisals and final evaluations for all participants. Over time, the returning protégés can see their previous year's suggestions integrated into the program. That level of student influence is also rare.

"It's not a one-shot deal"

"Another big strength," says Snow, "is that SOARS is in it for the long run. It's not a one-shot deal." Snow sees multiyear support for promising students as essential if the atmospheric science community is to be successful in attracting and retaining a diverse professional workforce. Barbara Kraus agrees. She's coordinator for CU's Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training program. SMART offers mentoring and community-building activities, but right now students come for one summer. Kraus views the four years of support SOARS offers as a way to keep students "in the pipeline." In her experience, the high salaries of summer internships in industry prove tempting to many science and technology majors, who then choose industry over graduate school. By keeping students involved for four years and offering up to 50% support for the first two years of graduate training, SOARS provides "a strong incentive to go on, rather than drop out of that pipeline."

Kraus also praised the personal attention Tom gives to each SOARS protégé. "It takes that kind of one-on-one–someone watching over you, looking out for you, pushing you along," she says. "It makes a difference." Kraus has observed Tom's ongoing encouragement first hand as two SOARS students have entered Ph.D. programs at CU.

The flattery of imitation

Jeffrey Gaffney, chief scientist for DOE's Global Change Education Program, has served not only as a DOE representative but also as a science research mentor for SOARS protégé Cherelle Blazer, who spent last summer working with Gaffney at DOE's Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. Gaffney visited Boulder last year and came away with the impression that "the mentoring program within SOARS was giving the students a feeling of belonging to a greater whole. . . . It was clear that the program was connecting with undergraduates and encouraging them to enter graduate school in [atmospheric science]." His observations and experiences led Gaffney to adapt the SOARS model in designing GCEP's Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE).

Becoming the norm

With three alumni (see the Fall 1999 issue of the UCAR Quarterly) and four years under its belt, SOARS is still learning from the experiences of its community of protégés and mentors. There are challenges to adoption of the SOARS model elsewhere, including issues of size (how large can a learning community get?) and expense (where will the salaries for protégés, which match the pay scale of the hosting lab, come from?). But the interest and support from sister programs and sponsoring agencies suggest that the success of SOARS, and not its uniqueness, is the attribute worth fostering.

• Zhenya Gallon

Community leadership 101

This summer SOARS organizers lost no time in beginning the process of community building. The day after most SOARS protégés arrived in Boulder, they packed up three UCAR vans and were on the road again. The protégés and SOARS staff headed off for a leadership workshop at the Nature Place, a conference center near Florissant, Colorado. The group spent two and a half days getting to know each other by participating in trust exercises, team challenges, and SOARS training. The leadership workshop was funded by NSF.

The team challenges get high ratings from all partipants. New protégé Summer Sands says, "Right from the beginning, the problem-solving activities gave us the opportunity to get to know a few people from within the larger group of strangers." This was also important to returning protégé Monica Rivera. "In some ways, I was more like the new protégés, even though this is my third SOARS summer. Since I was doing research in Mexico City for most of last summer, I never got to know last summer's protégés that well."

Brandeis Hill, another first-year protégé, liked seeing the Spirit and Nature video, Bill Moyers' interviews with spiritual and religious leaders from diverse backgrounds. Brandeis sees nature and the use of technology as the two end points on a spectrum. "With the use of so much technology, we have moved to one extreme," she said. "We are ruining the rain forests and causing other environmental damage. Now the pendulum needs to go back the other way, to create a balance."

Returning protégé Preston Heard said, "The leadership workshop this year got us off to a strong start. We bonded as a group and saw the importance of teamwork by doing it. The workshop reinforced the idea that each of us can teach and learn from one another, regardless of our backgrounds or interests." On a personal level, Preston said it was good for him to have the importance of collaboration reinforced, since he will be working as part of a team of five researchers this summer, led by Preston's science research mentor, Roger Pielke, Jr., of ESIG. The group will be assessing U.S. flood damage in the context of the El Niño—Southern Oscillation.

The group spirit and teamwork that started in Florissant spilled over into the protégé's first scientific writing and communication workshop back in Boulder. First-year protégés Yasmin Rodriguez and Darilis Suárez, who both recently took classes in public speaking, gave a joint talk on tips for making good oral presentations. "The first workshop was much more interactive than in other years," observed Preston. "First-year protégés were asking questions and contributing information. Other years, the writing workshop has been pretty quiet for the first few weeks."

• Nancy Dawson

Compare and contrast

Recently, over lunch in the FL cafeteria, Yarice Rodriguez and Lorenza (Lori) Levy compared their prior summer internships with early impressions of their first SOARS summer in Boulder.

Yarice, a recent graduate of Hunter College with a double major in geography and in energy and environmental policy, has held two year-long research assistantships, one with the Alliance for Minority Participation in Science, Math and Engineering (sponsored by NSF) and the other with Hunter's Public Service Scholar Program. She's still continuing with her AMPS project exploring butterfly migration in an urban setting. She has a faculty advisor she can consult on that project, but no one in roles comparable to the SOARS mentoring team. "We just have one person and that person doesn't fulfill [the same] role as a scientific mentor [in] SOARS," Yarice says. "In the SOARS program, we have so many people to speak to, we can let off steam with each and every person and get feedback."

Lori is entering her senior year with a major in physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Last summer she participated in the NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Lowell Observatory, hunting for comets and asteroids. This year in SOARS she's getting a taste of solar research in HAO.

At Lowell, Lori had a science mentor, "and that's it." Feedback was rare and it was difficult to know how she was doing.

After two weeks in Boulder, Lori found the contrast striking. Not only is feedback "constant" from mentors and peers, but the focus is much broader than her specific research project. "Here, we're growing as scientists, but also as people–making friends, learning to communicate with diverse people. Ultimately, the communication skills are so important in life."

Lori enjoyed working with the astronomers at Lowell, but the gulf between scientists and students could sometimes feel intimidating. "Here, I feel I can approach almost anyone, and that really builds your confidence level."

• ZG


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Wed Jul 19 13:56:38 MDT 2000