On October 15, as Argonne National Laboratory’s fiscal year drew toward a close, Educational Programs and Outreach hosted the Volunteer Appreciation Celebration to recognize over 275 active Outreach volunteers for this year. Coming from numerous departments and professions from across the Laboratory, they all had put time and effort into outreach programs that engage youth in STEM practices and lead them toward STEM pipelines and future professions. “You…have really touched many people who are going to do great things in their careers and become great leaders,” Argonne’s Director Paul Kearns praised the volunteers.
Each year, Outreach creates over 25,000 STEM engagement opportunities for youth and communities, but to make all of this possible, Educational Programs and Outreach needs the cooperation and support of numerous Argonne volunteers. In a year’s time, volunteers devote over 2,000 cumulative hours toward STEM outreach initiatives. And the annual Volunteer Appreciation Celebration is Outreach and the Lab’s way of acknowledging and thanking the volunteers for all their hard work. “I think everyone likes to be appreciated,” Nuclear Engineer Aaron Oaks said. “It definitely…provides a sense of closure.”
Outreach initiatives range from hosting multi-school competitions to speaking to classes on STEM topics to running STEM Fests booths. What makes Argonne’s outreach programs especially engaging for youth is their interactive and creative nature. “A lot of the outreach events we do aren’t traditional…experiences,” Cyber Security Analyst Roland Varriale explained, “and it shows them how the research is not always as traditional as you learn in school.” In addition, as the celebration revealed, volunteers bring a rich diversity of skills and experience from across the Lab. “It’s incredible to see how wide the volunteering efforts are at the Lab,” Roland shared, “and a lot of the different efforts that…I’m not exposed to.”
Volunteers’ motives vary, but for many, the joy comes in seeing students become fascinated in science, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Coming from a family of teachers, Lead Systems Engineer Brian Sebby views outreach volunteering as a way to educate students while still continuing his primary work as an IT professional. His favorite part of his volunteer work is “just seeing their faces light up as they realize, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’. Similarly, Chemical Engineer Krista Hawthorne likes to see “the look on their face when something cool happens with chemistry,” because she remembers feeling the same curiosity and excitement as a child.
Moreover, the volunteers realize that their shared effort to engage youth in science has a tremendous positive impact in both individual lives and in the future of the STEM community. “I think that it’s important to give back to the communities that I grew up in,” Roland said when explaining his reasons for volunteering with Outreach. By fostering students’ interest in scientific pathways, he and others help grow a new generation of STEM professionals, and there’s no time to waste. “It’s important to get kids interested early,” Brian emphasized. “Some of the most rewarding things have been making sure people know that everyone can do this [science], and if people are interested, they should go for it and learn more.”
Before leaving the celebration, many of those gathered expressed their determination to continue making a positive difference in students’ lives as volunteers for Educational Programs and Outreach. “The Educational Outreach Department does great work,” Krista concluded, “and I really hope they continue doing what they do, and that I get to continue volunteering with them.”