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Blog: A Brief History of TSoG

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Written by: Dr. Foland
Published on: March 26, 2020

TSoG - celebrating 7 years of science.

With our 7th anniversary around the corner, with the relaunch of our Mentorship program underway, and with all of us stuck at home in COVID-19 lockdown, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to reflect on the history of this organization and what my dedication to the vision of TSoG means to me.

When I first founded The Shoulders of Giants, our focus was almost exclusively on elementary-aged STEM outreach. Reach kids early, give them hands-on opportunities, and get them excited about diving deeper into science and engineering down the road - that was more or less our modus operandi from 2013 until the beginning of 2015. Mind you, kids that age are hard to get to sit still (I know, I currently have one that age), and I have a great respect for the teachers who manage to get them to listen day in and day out, but providing supplementary instruction to kids that age is like being an educator on "Easy" mode: Ask the class a question? - Every hand shoots up... Need a volunteer from the audience? - How about 10?... Ask the class, "Are you all ready to learn about some science today?" - Aye aye, Captain!

My perspective as an educator changed greatly when I took on a role as a university educator (Note: Dr. Foland served as the director of the biomedical engineering undergraduate program at The University of Texas at Dallas from 2014 - 2018). All of my students at the university were passionate enough about STEM to have made it that far (or, at the very least, they were passionate enough about it at one time). Unfortunately, many of them were so vastly unprepared to take the next steps in their academic journey that their passion was quickly fading. I became acutely aware during this time that simply "making it through classes" or even getting straight As was not enough to turn a student into a good engineer or even a proficient problem solver. The talent was there, the resources were right in front of them... but the mindset and culture needed to foster continued personal and professional growth was lost on far, far too many. The short-sighted approach to this problem is to pen "weed out" courses to help scare off the students who, perhaps, don't belong in the field. But a few broader questions weighed heavily on my mind: How did these students end up in the "wrong" field to begin with? And what happens between elementary school and adulthood that steals so much of our enthusiasm for learning away from us?

In response to this, The Shoulders of Giants launched our first STEM Mentorship program for high school students in fall of 2015. This was an incredible opportunity for me to work with a small group of talented students and instill in them all of the knowledge I had gained through hindsight that I wished I had known when I was their age and that I wished someone had told my university students before they made it to my classes. In this program, around 15 - 20 students would gather at my lab every Saturday, listen to me lecture, and perform hands-on experiments across a variety of STEM disciplines. What we provided in this program is something that so many of us never get a chance experience - an opportunity to explore as much of the breadth of science and engineering as possible before picking a college major. Some came in with a field they were already passionate about and had that passion confirmed. Others came in unsure of themselves and found a field they were passionate about along the way. A few others found out that science and engineering were not for them and that's OK too. All of these are positive outcomes, and all of our students walked away more prepared for their roads ahead. So many talented students came out of those early days of the program! Almost all of them are still a part of our community, by the way - I'll be happy to introduce you to them when you join us. 😀

Our Mentorship program expanded to include middle school students in 2017, finally bridging the gap between the elementary-aged outreach of our early days and the university students I was still teaching in my day job. I am very proud to say that I have had the opportunity to teach at literally every educational level: from making "slime" with rowdy groups of kindergartners and 1st graders to teaching graduate students about the ins and outs of pedagogy as they embarked on their first assignments as teaching assistants. Along the way, learned that the challenges we face along our educational journeys are different at every stage, and that we all reach those stages at different paces. I also learned that there is no "right" way to learn - what works best for me might not work well for you, and vice versa. Lastly, I learned that the time and dedication needed to truly master a field are insurmountable if what you are pursuing doesn't bring you joy.

I stepped away from my role at the university in fall of 2018 to pursue the process of revamping TSoG's Mentorship program to its full potential. It is my belief that every student - not just students within a reasonable driving radius of my lab - should have the opportunity to begin exploring the vast world of science and engineering, as early and as often as possible. I am here to help students of any age discover the field or fields they were born to pursue; and along the way, I want to provide them with all the resources they need to succeed in those fields, for free, no matter what age they are when they discover them.

At the end of the day, that's what this organization and our vision for it means to me. This is the program I wish existed when I was younger - I hope you'll feel the same way.