Pen Pal Program (PPP)

Passion for an education and/or a career in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs can develop at any age, and UChicago's Physical Sciences Division (PSD) Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) has partnered with Bret Harte Elementary (BHE) for an exciting opportunity for PSD graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to connect with elementary students and inspire their love for STEM! We are looking for 25 participants to be paired with each of the 25 students and write an individualized letter to them!

To learn more about the classes of students you can write to, click on each below:

5th Grade at Bret Harte Elementary

Interested in participating? Sign up here by Sunday, October 15th!

Program Details:

The PSD Pen Pal Program is a year-long mail program that connects elementary-school students (Student Pen Pals) with a PSD student or postdoctoral researcher (PSD Pen Pals) to demystify STEM education and careers, humanize STEM professionals, and empower all students to explore a future in STEM. PSD Pen Pals will write to a Student Pen Pal following several letter themes and receive a response. In addition to addressing the theme, we encourage students to share their stories and ask lots of questions to connect authentically with their PSD Pen Pal. One to two letter exchanges will occur per academic quarter, referred to as a "round" of letters.

Letter Themes

Including content related to the theme in each letter is important because:

  • These are the topics we have identified as necessary for every pair to discuss to accomplish the program goals.
  • Themes help teachers plan for what to expect in the student letters so they can use letter content to support their lessons.
  • In the unfortunate situation that your elementary-/middle-school class isn’t able to send you a letter one round, or you are having trouble connecting with them, themes provide suggestions about what to write about in the following rounds.

The themes should guide your letter but aren’t meant to limit your creativity or prescribe your entire letter. The individuality of each letter is what makes this program special, and we encourage you to foster a connection with your Student Pen Pals and encourage them to explore their interests.

Round 1: Introduction and STEM Career Pathways

The topic for letter one is your background and your STEM career path. Introduce yourself to your Student Pen Pal and explain your current educational/career path in a middle/high school student-friendly language. For many students, this is their first time connecting science to a job! Students will share what you do with other students in their class. The goal is for students to develop concrete examples of what “being a scientist” could mean and help them see that there are many paths to becoming a STEM professional.

Round 2: Higher Education Journeys

The topic for this round is your higher education journey! In one or two paragraphs, break down your path from high school to where you are today to help your Student Pen Pal realistically understand one way to “become a STEM professional when they grow up.” We believe reading about your journey will make “going to college” more real for your Student Pen Pal, even though we acknowledge every higher-education experience is unique. Consider including pictures of you in college, your mascot, campus, etc., to help your Student Pen Pals visualize a college experience. Students will be engaging in research about your college(s) before replying to your letter, so feel free to include a website for them to visit!

As you consider what to share this round, think back to your middle/high school self. Would hearing that you are in 30th grade have been motivating or intimidating? Would you have been able to understand a sentence with the word “postdoc”? Some students may feel unsure of their ability to become a scientist after hearing about how some of you have been in college for 10+ years after high school. We encourage you to share your perspective on why higher education is exciting and how it differs from middle/high school. We also challenge you to define all college-related vocabulary you use! Student Pen Pals may not have prior experience learning about different types of colleges or degrees, and this is an excellent opportunity to build their “college knowledge.”

Round 3: Overcoming Obstacles

The theme for round three is overcoming obstacles, which continues to be relevant as we navigate 2022-2023! This round has the potential to be highly impactful and make Pen Pals feel more connected to one another.

In one or two paragraphs, describe a time when you had to persevere in the face of a challenge. Explain how that experience has helped you become a more successful STEM student/professional. Please interpret this prompt in a way that makes sense to you; it is intentionally vague. We acknowledge that each person has faced unique educational, professional, and personal obstacles and that your challenges may not be the same ones your Student Pen Pals have or will face. We also realize some obstacles are deeply personal and may not be stories or topics you are comfortable sharing. Share as you feel comfortable.

This topic was selected because all students have and will face obstacles. We want students to understand that they are not alone and to help them build a toolkit of strategies and examples they can pull from in the face of a challenge. We also believe this topic will humanize STEM graduate students/professionals and encourage connection between you and your Student Pen Pals. Being vulnerable and identifying commonalities (students will be replying with a similar prompt) can deepen relationships.

Round 4: Reflect and Inspire

It’s time to write your final letter to your Student Pen Pals! They will read this letter during the last Letter Opening Day of the year to close out the PSD Pen Pal Program.

*** Reminder: Do not share any contact information with your pen pal or encourage them to continue corresponding with you outside of the Pen Pal Program. ***

The topic for round four is “reflect and inspire”! This theme is important because students who discuss their future with their PSD Pen Pal will see a bigger change in wanting to become a STEM professional than students who have little to no discussion about their future with their PSD Pen Pal. Additionally, teachers will seek an opportunity to facilitate program closure with their students.

This theme is intentionally vaguer than the other three. We encourage you to trust your instincts and use what you know about your Student Pen Pals to determine the best way to bring closure to your relationship.

Q & A

Can I participate?

If you are a PSD student or postdoctoral researcher, you are welcome to sign up! We welcome PSD students and postdocs from all PSD departments and centers. The main requirement is that you are enthusiastic about communicating with elementary-/middle-school students.

What’s the timeline and commitment?

We estimate this volunteer opportunity requires a commitment of approximately 4-8 hours spread out in chunks of 1-2 hours between August and June. Ideally, in August, PSD students and postdocs register to become a PSD Pen Pal for the upcoming school year. Volunteers then review the letter prompts.

Approximately every other month, PSD Pen Pals will initiate the conversation and bring a letter to the Director of Diversity and Inclusion, who will send the letters to their Student Pen Pal’s school, then receive replies from their Student Pen Pals.

Interested in participating? Sign up here by Sunday, October 15th!