Giving the gift of science education


Every year, I do my charitable giving at the holidays. It doesn't make much sense from a personal budget standpoint, since I'm always running out of money and time, but it just feels like a good thing to do. This year, I'm going to feature one recipient here on the blog, in the hopes of raising awareness of all the great local charities out there who don't get much press.

Unlike my perennial favorites Doctors Without Borders and DonorsChoose - both wonderful organizations who do a lot of good, and have been featured on BioE already this year - or media groups like NPR and Wikimedia, there are many smaller organizations that don't get any publicity, doing their work under the radar in local communities. These smaller groups fill the interstices between the larger charitable giving programs. And while you can certainly make the case that nationwide, high-profile charities are arguably more efficient and far-reaching, smaller organizations give many more citizens the opportunity to be personally involved in creating and administering a non-profit, thinking about community needs, and coming up with creative ways to address them. I think it's a no-brainer that the more people we have actively thinking about the needs of their communities and working to address them, the better things will be. Don't you?

This year, I want to tell the story of a very small charity indeed: the Clarkston Education Foundation. Clarkston is a small town in eastern Washington state, with one public high school, a middle school, and four elementary schools. In the 2000 census (the most recent nationwide demographic data for Clarkston), the town had just over 7K people (although its school system serves communities outside the city limits, so the effective population is larger than that.) 15.5% of families within Clarkston live below the poverty line (almost twice the nationwide average). Only 13.1% of Clarkston's population over 25 has a college degree - compared with 25% nationwide (or 65% in Cambridge, MA).

In sum, Clarkston is much like many other small towns in the United States: even for good students, "going to college" is not automatic; many kids don't see the point, don't know what opportunities are out there, or just can't afford it. How do I know? Because I grew up in Clarkston. I spent my senior year competing with my friends to get scholarships - knowing if we didn't get them, we weren't going anywhere at all.

That's why I think the Clarkston Education Foundation is awesome (full disclosure: I served on the CEF Board several years ago). CEF was created when some local graduates (now professionals) got together to try to improve the educational odds for Clarkston's kids. They started out by providing a scholarship to a high school senior, and they now provide several scholarships each year. But that program reached mainly those students who are already successful in school, not those that may fall by the wayside. So CEF expanded its reach to 8th graders (they're awarded scholarships contingent on successfully completing high school) and local teachers (who can apply for mini-grants to fund field trips, lab projects, tech purchases, rent portable planetariums (!), and other activities that aren't in their school's budget).


So what about science? Well, over time, CEF has developed several initiatives specifically to promote science. Here are some of the scientific grants CEF awarded just this year:

  • Magellan Explorist GPS units (middle school)
  • MyCycler Thermocycler for the biology lab (high school)
  • Vernier Software for science classes (elementary school)
  • $500 toward 7th/8th grade Science Club projects (Hydrogen Fuel Cell/Solar Car competition, U of I Science Knowledge Bowl, Science Olympiad, StarLab, Wind Turbines)

Take my word for it: this is huge for a tiny town like Clarkston. Plus, CEF awards a science scholarship at the high school level as well, and sponsors a science fair at the middle school to get students excited about scientific, technical, and medical careers - among their guests this year were law enforcement, doctors, EMTs, and even an embalmer. (At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, this sort of stuff never happened at school when I was a kid!)


Anyway, SEED/ will sending my blog proceeds this holiday season to CEF, so you can help out simply by bumping up traffic - reading and sharing links to BioE (which hopefully you're already doing). But if you haven't finished your gift list, I'd also like to ask you to consider giving directly to CEF - every little bit helps, and this is an organization unusually near and dear to my heart.

I think it's kind of scary that there are thousands of inquisitive, curious, excited kids out there right now, in towns you and I have never heard of, who have what it takes to earn BAs and BSs and PhDs and MDs - they just need some help getting started. But many of them may not get that help. While CEF didn't exist when I graduated, I was helped financially by a lot of very generous organizations, and went to a college that took financial aid very seriously. As far as I'm concerned, I can never fully pay that generosity back, no matter how hard I try. That's a very humbling, yet somehow inspiring thought - and why I give to CEF (and others) every year.

Thanks for listening, and happy holidays.

Photos from CEF: (1) Lincoln Middle School Science Club with teacher Flo Johnson; (2) Clarkston High School science students with teacher Don Dotson; (3) EMT Jim Babino at the Lincoln Middle School Career Fair.

Give to CEF here.

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