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 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
"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-onesomeone
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
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.
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
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 NiñoSouthern 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."
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 peoplemaking 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
In this issue...
Other issues of Staff Notes Monthly
Edited by Bob Henson,
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Wed Jul 19 13:56:38 MDT 2000