Thursday, January 14, 2021
A Message from Terri Graham, Interim President, West and Downtown Campuses
Inspired by Valencia College’s LifeMap model and motivated to meet her students’ needs for purpose and personal connection, Laura D’Alessio, professor, biology, introduced STEMpossible, a guest speaker series focused on helping students explore and connect with career pathways in science, technology, engineering, medicine and math.
“Last summer, current and former students started reaching out to me, expressing that they felt disconnected and adrift,” Laura shared. “With no sense of purpose, their pathways to graduation and future careers were increasingly muddy. They wanted to get involved and needed to make connections but did not know where to start. I realized that there was a significant opportunity here. I had an idea of what needed to be done, but pulling it off would require me to reach outside my comfort zone.”
Inspired by her students, Laura set out to organize a Zoom series featuring guest speakers working in STEM fields. Through these Zoom sessions, students could gain an inside perspective on various STEM careers and connect with young professionals, many of whom were recent Valencia or University of Central Florida (UCF) graduates.
Often, the most challenging phase of organizing a guest speaker series is finding the guests.
“I reached out to my friends and former students on social media and proposed my idea,” Laura said. “I didn’t expect many people to respond — we were all so drained from our own pandemic ordeals. I was shocked when I had over 20 replies from folks who wanted to help. In addition to being guest speakers, they wanted to serve as points of contact for students interested in their fields. Their enthusiasm convinced me that I was onto something big.”
After trimming down the fall guest roster to 11 speakers, Laura had to learn how to host a web series, create resources to guide her guest speakers and design promotional materials to entice her students to participate.
“It probably took me a solid two weeks to set up for the first event,” she admitted. “I felt like a wobbly baby giraffe learning how to walk. Everything had to be made from scratch.”
Laura wanted the webinars to be informal and cozy so students would feel comfortable actually talking to the guests and asking questions.
“I envisioned a talk show vibe where I served as the Oprah. I created a list of interview prompts and let each guest select which ones they wanted to discuss during their event. I wanted it to feel conversational and interactive. I set the tone and managed the pace, my guests provided their insights and the students chimed in with questions and comments.”
During an event featuring guest David Engel, a Valencia and UCF alumnus working as a UCF research assistant, one student attendee offered the following revelation:
“I’ve been so focused on becoming a pharmacist, I never considered getting involved in undergraduate research,” explained student attendee Olena Gress. After hearing you [David] talk about your work at UCF [developing treatments for neurodegenerative conditions], I think I want to try that. Instead of selling the meds, maybe I can help create them.”
David and Laura were instantly able to connect Olena with resources regarding undergraduate research opportunities at both Valencia and UCF.
The fall 2020 STEMpossible series was an incredible success, with 10 events and more than 150 student attendees. Guest speakers represented diverse fields, including entomology, marine turtle and coastline conservation, COVID-19 research, data science, museum curatorial work and collections management, neurodegenerative disease research, science textbook publishing, environmental protection and biodiversity assessment and preservation.
The guest speakers were also diverse, representing many genders, ethnicities and nationalities. Guest speakers attended from all over the country, with one guest speaking from Bogotá, Colombia, and students joining the Zoom from Brazil and Pakistan.
“The beauty of Zoom — a silver lining from this pandemic — is that we are no longer constrained by physical distance. Students from all campuses can attend these events, and I can feature guest speakers from all over the world.”
Based on its success in the fall, the STEMpossible guest speaker series will restart this spring with a fresh set of guests and with hopes of engaging students collegewide.
Details about spring 2021 STEMpossible events, including speaker bios, event dates and times, and links to event registration, will be posted here in the coming weeks.
To learn more about STEMpossible, contact Laura at LDalessio@valenciacollege.edu or 407-299-5000, extension 5048.