Save a copy of your letters and the students’ responses.
Your old letters will remind you what you told them and asked them previously.
Student responses will give you ideas for topics to write about.
When you start with a new pen pal next year, you can recycle the first letter.
Keep it simple.
Don’t overthink your letters! Set aside professional writing tips and relax.
Remember when you were the same age as your pen pal and what it would have been like to talk to an adult stranger.Think about explaining your current work to a much younger version of yourself. What they might find interesting as they explore the world?
Build rapport first and foremost. You are a human, show the students that. Don’t be discouraged if the first letter from your pen pal hardly mentions science. Students want to learn more about you so that they feel like they know and can trust you before you can really get into science conversations with many of them. See the kid as a friend and they will be more likely to open up to you.
Keep trying, be flexible.
Keep writing about different things until you connect. Your pen pal may not relate to science much, yet. Start with personal stories.Keep writing little bits about what you do and more about things that interest her or him.
Manage your expectations and be patient waiting for letters from your pen pal.
Be friendly, open, honest, and curious!
In the first letter, be open about who you are as a person, not just as a STEM professional.
Don’t be hesitant to share life stories with the students.
Add some personal details about how you feel about your work. Talk about why you enjoy what you do as opposed to just what you study/research/do.
Don’t feel shy! Be enthusiastic and share what you love! It’s infectious.
Run with what your pen pal gives you, even if it’s not what you would “want” to write about initially!
Include photos if you can–it really stimulates conversation.
Whether hand-drawn or from online, pictures are great ways to connect.
Send photos of other things in your life like your pets, family, or where you live.
Especially if you are part of a marginalized group, including a photo of you and your family can help your penpal see that people other than white men can become scientists.
Make your career “real” by including color photos of your work, like your lab or field work. They help the student visualize your life.
Ask LOTS of questions to your student.
Show the young scientist their thoughts matter by asking questions about them.
Don’t be disappointed if they only answer some of them.
Ask questions about your pen pal early in the year to know more than their school life! This allows you to find commonalities with your pre-scientist.
Questions help direct how pre-scientists respond to your letter.
Get creative with your letters!
Don’t be afraid to include more than a letter in your envelope! Students will feel special, and will save and talk about these with others:
Pick a visual product/graphic/resource from your office.
Send swag from your university or company, like pens or stickers.
Pick up the free stuff at conferences.
Search for riddles, science jokes or weird fun facts.
Send stickers. Everyone loves stickers.
Wrap your letter in an old map instead of an envelope.
Keep a stash between letter rounds of random things to send.
Pen pals often get off-topic– steer the conversation toward STEM in creative ways.
Be open to deviating from your field of study to engage the student in their STEM related interests. Hone in early on what your students interests are and talk about science through that topic.
Show students science in the ways they currently live their lives. For example: if they like to mountain bike, talk about the geology of the area or physics of biking.
Really practice writing to the level of the pre-scientist you’re corresponding with.
Don’t be afraid to scrap a letter if you have to.
If possible, get feedback from a peer before sending your letters, especially related to vocabulary that might inadvertently alienate, intimidate or discourage your pen pal. Remember, they may have little prior knowledge of higher education or STEM careers.
Kids are smart, don’t be afraid to explain something complex to them.
It’s ok to use scientific terms, as long as you thoroughly explain them using words that are less intimidating. No jargon without explanation!
Always try to connect technical concepts to everyday experiences.
Don’t “dumb down” things, and don’t talk down to students. Talk to your pen pal like they haven’t studied your field.
Don’t inundate your pen pal with information. Instead, pick a few big ideas and repeat them throughout letters.
Just because YOU know your work is interesting, that doesn’t mean children do! Frame it in an easy to understand way that is relatable to them.
Science is amazing but talk to your pen pal about other things you’re interested in as well.
Talk about your job but also about life outside work and pen pals will reciprocate. People like to know people, not just work.
Read more about your pen pal’s interests and passions.
Ask your pen pal about their favorite sports, musicians, or pets! They’re young and that’s where a lot of their lives happen.
Embrace the randomness of the letters! It makes the communication a little less robotic and more enjoyable.
Write about everyday things you do that everyone can relate to.