Growing high school STEM outreach program led by Graduate Student

UM doctoral student Savannah Draud conducts research in the Department of Biology. Draud, who teaches introductory biology labs, also works with Oxford-area high school students to improve their science literacy. photo submitted

OXFORD, Mississippi – Savannah Draud, a graduate student in biology at the University of Mississippi, spends time at local high schools to improve science literacy and inspire students to pursue their education and love of science, technology, engineering, and math subjects .

The Long Island, New York native who teaches introductory biology labs at UM noticed that her students struggled with an assignment that asked them to read and summarize a research paper.

“I noticed that my students struggled with this project because they’ve never seen an academic paper before, and reading this type of literature is very different than reading a regular book,” Draud said.

This observation guides the aspiring college professor’s high school lectures, where she speaks to AP biology, AP biology, human anatomy and physiology, and chemistry.

“My idea is to go to the high schools here and teach basic science in biology class — how to read these kinds of essays and then also have discussions about those essays,” she said. “Students can ask about anything – this can range from the specific work we are talking about to issues like gender or underrepresented communities.

“The study of science can lead to good scientific and philosophical discussions.”

The lectures capture the interest of high school students because they allow students to explore things they are curious about.

Savannah Draud works with Oxford-area high school students to improve their science skills in hopes of inspiring them to pursue careers in STEM subjects. photo submitted

“Just last week I had a group of students excited to ask me the craziest biology questions,” Draud said. “They shot down random questions like, ‘Oh, what do you think goes through a bear’s mind when it decides to attack you?’ and ‘Do jellyfish count as real animals?’

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“I could tell they were interested and actually listening to what I had to say as I explained it through a scientific lens.”

Draud invites her fellow Ole Misses to join her in the classroom so students can hear from a variety of research perspectives.

“It’s like a graded mentoring program where people from all different levels who study science come in and talk to the students about what they’re doing,” she said. “A lot of my PhD students. Undergraduate and graduate students have already published their own research, so I encourage them to come in and talk about their research so that the high school students have a chance to talk to the actual scientists who are doing the work.”

Draud’s enthusiasm for science shows in her lectures, and students look forward to her visits, said Jeana Noble, a biology teacher at Oxford High School.

“Not only did my students slouch a little when she simplified the process of analyzing a scholarly article, but she also provided them with connections to the real world,” Noble said. “Her personal experiences of success and failure have taught her that you can learn as much from failure as you can from success. What a great opportunity for my students.”

Creating and maintaining it without funding is an impressive feat for a graduate student, said Sixue Chen, chair of UM’s Faculty of Biology. Chen and Draud have been working on ways to further expand the number of teachers, funding, and outreach of the program.

“As one of the poorest states in the country, Mississippi has a large population living in poverty and food insecurity,” Chen said. “The people disproportionately affected are often underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged communities.

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“An effective way to lift people out of poverty is to pursue higher education – getting more and more high school students interested in science and wanting to go to college is life-changing for many and therefore important for the future of Mississippi residents particularly important.

“My dream is to have an inspiring young scientist like Savannah in every school in Mississippi.”

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