The Science Posse: Innovative Outreach Connecting Graduate Fellows and K-12 Students

Kelly Herbinson and Maggie Renken

Wyoming is best known for its looming landscapes—the high plains, Rocky Mountains and grandiose Yellowstone National Park. It is also the least populous and tenth largest state, with just over 520,000 people living in 98,000 square miles. With approximately five people per square mile, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education outreach becomes an ominous task. Fortunately, the Science Posse, a team of interdisciplinary doctoral students at the University of Wyoming, is up to the challenge.

The Science Posse was established at the University of Wyoming in 2005, and for four years has introduced over 4,000 K-12 students throughout the state to science and math in fun and engaging ways [1]. Graduate fellows working in the program share a passion for research and education and have represented the fields of botany, chemistry, ecology, electrical engineering, geology, molecular biology, mathematics, neuroscience, paleontology, pharmacology, physiology, psychology, and zoology.

Fellows deliver classroom activities throughout the state, including:
  • Careers in Science Presentations during which they discuss their research, talking about the things they like and dislike, what the atmosphere is like, and what careers they can pursue later with the expertise they acquire.
  • Science Fair Collaborations during which they assist students and teachers with science fair topics and development. They introduce students to the scientific method, discuss the qualities of a good research project, and provide ongoing support.
  • Science Demonstration Days during which they perform authentic experiments and demonstrations designed to excite and awe students. (Popular lessons include dry ice experiments and sheep brain dissections.)
For more in depth, inquiry-based experiences, fellows have created two mystery units for students to solve:
  • CSI: Wyoming, Murder in Yellowstone invites students to solve a crime using anatomy and dissection, forensic psychology, ballistics, forensic entomology, toxicology and DNA evidence to solve the crime.
  • CDC: Wyoming, The Twin Pines Mystery Illness challenges students to work together to uncover the cause of a strange illness. Students experiment with the engineering of energy sources, cryptography, bioaccumulation, diagnostic medicine, geology and hydrology to determine if the town’s water has been contaminated by the nuclear power plant, the old gold mine, or the pig farm.

The Science Posse also welcomes students to the University of Wyoming campus for lab tours. Graduate fellows give visiting students a tour of their labs and discuss their research and their experiences as graduate students.

In addition to traveling throughout the state, fellows are paired with local teachers. This academic year, nine fellows have worked in teams with local teachers to collaborate on the development of inquiry-based science units that address ecological responsibility in relation to energy consumption and water quality.

Through these varied outreach activities, the program seeks to increase Wyoming students’ understanding and appreciation for what science is and what scientists do using innovative, inquiry-based methods designed to spark curiosity and investigative thought. These endeavors ideally encourage students to take more math and science courses in high school and to consider STEM careers. The Posse also strives to increase teacher knowledge and awareness of developments in the process of modern science and advancements in science education techniques.

While K-12 students and educators may appear on the surface to be the main beneficiaries of the Science Posse, the program was designed with goals addressing benefits for everyone involved, and graduate fellows are at the heart of the program. In regard to the fellows then, the program aims to increase their ability to translate research into relevant and meaningful discourse. It also introduces them to the importance of public service while providing such service opportunities. Finally, graduate fellows are involved in interdisciplinary discourse throughout the year as they work together to create science lessons. Together, these components of the fellows’ experience function to develop a generation of research scientists dedicated to and well-versed in communicating their research and its importance to the public.

Perhaps better articulated in the graduate fellows’ own words, after a year of Science Posse involvement, one student reflected, “a great aspect of the Science Posse is that we get to present our findings and model systems to a lay audience. This audience is particularly valuable because they often ask questions that you might never have to field in the typical confines of your academic area of expertise. As such, I think you get pushed to learn more about your subject area, albeit in a much more general sense, than you might normally.” Another graduate fellow found that, “ultimately, [he had] gained a better understanding of how to effectively teach science, and this will help [him] in future work with both middle school and college students.”

Unlike most STEM outreach programs, by combining a local partner teacher component with a massive intra-state outreach program, teachers are provided a variety of options for inspiring their students to pursue STEM education and careers. For graduate fellows, the Science Posse’s unique outreach model instills flexibility in teaching and communication skills—something not always acquired teaching undergraduate courses alone. Although the state of Wyoming is expansive, the Science Posse continues to offer unrivaled support for Wyoming educators, scientific inspiration for Wyoming students, and unparalleled teaching skills for University of Wyoming STEM doctoral students [2].


[1]. Since it’s inception, the Science Posse has been funded through a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Center for Research and the National Institute of Health, by the University of Wyoming, and by the National Science Foundation Graduate Education in K-12 grant program.

[2]. For more information about the Science Posse, visit our website,

Kelly Herbinson is a masters student in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Wyoming interested in the creative communication of scientific concepts. She holds both a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Ecology and studied desert tortoises and ants before becoming a writer.

Maggie Renken is co-coordinator for the Science Posse and a doctoral student in developmental psychology at the University of Wyoming. Her research focuses on adolescent reasoning and science education with specific interest in misconceptions in the physical sciences.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.