When Rob Streeter is teaching in a classroom somewhere in Wyoming, he knows what many of the students who are staring back at him are thinking. He knows because, not so long ago, he was in their shoes.
Growing up in Saratoga—the pleasant town of about 1,700 people in Carbon County, where the locals like to say that the trout leap in Main Street—Streeter figured he’d have to leave Wyoming to make something of himself. He figured the state’s only university wouldn’t offer enough opportunity.
He figured there was a better place.
He figured wrong. “I think there are a lot of younger people around the state who feel like, ‘Oh, I’m from small-town Wyoming and I’m just gonna inherit the family business,’ or ‘I’m gonna be in Lander or Torrington or Saratoga forever,’” says Streeter, who is pursuing his master’s degree in electrical engineering; he already has earned two bachelor’s degrees from UW. “What students don’t realize is the number of opportunities that are right here in Laramie.”
He’s doing what he can to make sure they find out through his work on UW’s Energy and Environmental Nanotechnology GK-12 Project, a National Science Foundation-funded initiative that enables graduate students to share their knowledge of science while acting as role models in rural classrooms.
The GK-12 project isn’t alone in its quest to inspire students who are interested in scientific careers.
The Science Posse, created in 2006 and also funded by the NSF, is a group of UW graduate students in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) who travel the nation’s most sparsely populated state—scientific tools and supplies in hand—to share their passion.
And, since 1985, UW’s Summer Research Apprentice Program (SRAP) has provided minority, first-generation and female students with the opportunity to gain hands-on research experience in a collegiate setting. The intensive six-week paid program is sponsored and funded by Wyoming EPSCoR, a federal grant program that helps Wyoming to be nationally competitive in science and technology.
“This program gets rural kids—I grew up in a really rural, agriculturally dominated area—and introduces them to the scientific world. I learned new things every day. It just blew my mind!” says Leo Perez, a sophomore petroleum engineering major from Glendo who twice participated in SRAP before enrolling at UW. “And there’s a really great staff. They not only do a good job of dealing with a group of high school kids for six weeks, but they always have something for you to do. They really put a lot of effort into the program to make it the best it can be.”
The Science Posse leaves a similar impression—“The kids just love it when they come here. They actually remember them from the previous years and always get super excited,” says Brenda Morgan, a fourth-grade teacher at Encampment School—while also motivating the teachers who welcome the UW fellows into their classrooms.
“They do such a wonderful job of opening up the students’ eyes to the world of possibilities in science. I’ve had some students come up to me and say, ‘Wow! I could do this for a living when I grow up?’” says Becky Qualm, who teaches fifth- and sixth-graders at Clear Creek Elementary School in Buffalo. “When I see them teaching and interacting with the students, I feel like it pushes me, as an educator, to take the next step. I just think their enthusiasm is contagious.”
The GK-12 project has quickly become a favorite, too. In its first three years, the group has forged relationships with teachers at 11 schools, including the remote outposts of Glendo, Lusk and Yoder.
Is the program working? Streeter says he’s already seeing the proof.
“Some of the students I had last year are here as freshmen in engineering this year,” he says. “I’m not taking credit for it, but it’s cool to see.”