Mentoring program keeps growing in Austin

Published 11:31 am Sunday, August 28, 2016

By Greg Siems

Vision 2020 Director

The start of the new school year is just around the corner (or it’s already arrived for those on the 45/15 schedule!), so it’s worth taking time to reflect on how lucky we are to have such a great educational system here in Austin. Earlier this summer, I wrote about all of the accolades our schools have received recently, and it’s no secret our teachers, staff, coaches, mentors and volunteers all do extraordinary work.

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Education has been a focus for Vision 2020 since the beginning, and a new nonprofit — Austin Aspires — was formed in 2014 to help our community make an even bigger collective impact on our students. There are so many different ways to get involved in this work, whether it is with Austin Aspires or any of the schools and activities in Austin. I’d like to talk a little more about one opportunity in particular, the Science Fair Mentoring Project (SFMP), which exemplifies everything that is good about education in our community and provides a simple way for you to make a difference.

SFMP has four main goals. The first is to increase enrollment in science fair activities. Many students still may not be aware of the science fair, how they can get involved, or how much fun it is to participate. The second goal is to expose students to science in a new way, through engaging activities in a supportive environment.

Students might not have parents or other adults in their lives who can steer them in the right direction or help them with their projects. This is the third goal: providing students with the opportunity to develop positive relationships with adults in the community. The fourth, related goal is to provide meaningful civic engagement opportunities to the Austin community.

Put all of this together and you have the makings of a truly impactful program. Volunteers have contributed hundreds of hours and hundreds of kids have experienced science in a fun, positive setting. Participation rates in the science fair have increased significantly in the elementary schools in particular. Neveln’s fourth graders, for instance, jumped from 10 percent of students participating in 2013-14 to 42 percent last year.

Despite this incredible success, SFMP has even bigger goals and is looking to expand into this year and beyond. The program is working with the Austin Public Library and other community partners to make sure as many students as possible can take part.

More mentors are greatly needed, and you can truly make a difference in a child’s life by volunteering. You absolutely don’t need a scientific degree in order to help; curiosity and willingness to lend a hand are the only prerequisites. Schedules are flexible and you can put in as much time as you are able.

If you want to get involved in this great work, please contact Catherine Haslag at She is the coordinator of the program (and a volunteer herself!), and she can help match you up with a student and project that works for you. You can also learn more at the Science Fair Mentoring Project Facebook page or watch Catherine’s TEDx talk entitled “The Power of a Hypothesis.”

Again, best of luck to all of the students, teachers, and others heading back to the classroom for another year. You are all making Austin proud!