In September 2020, we were all involved in the undergraduate psychology programme at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada (P.W., P.V. and R.P. as final-year students pursuing an honours degree, E.C. as an instructor and A.R. as a graduate student). In any other year, the undergraduates would have spent much of the time in a laboratory working closely with researchers and graduate students on their first research projects. For those of us applying to graduate schools, the experience of writing an honours thesis would have helped to decide our career direction, as well as offering practical skills, opportunities to publish and letters of reference.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic meant we were confined to our homes. Each of us was forced into planning thesis projects that could be conducted remotely. We felt disconnected, and that we were missing out. Faced with a full lockdown and remote-only learning and research, we were concerned about how this crucial year would play out.
When, over Zoom conference calls, we began to discuss the impact of this change on our futures (and on our mental health), we quickly understood that the pandemic was affecting individuals at all levels of education: professors, graduate students, and even students who were completing secondary school. There would normally be many opportunities for secondary-school students to visit campuses, chat with academic advisers and attend outreach activities to learn more about scientific career paths and what research involves — but these dried up once the pandemic settled in.
Our final-year class of 13 students decided to tackle this lack of connection, as well as our missing out on skills development, by creating PsychOut (short for ‘Psychology Outreach’). It would be a volunteer programme in which we mentored secondary-school students and acquired skills for our future careers in the process. We recruited graduate students and professors to add depth to our expertise.
PsychOut sessions took the form of one-on-one virtual meetings every two weeks throughout the 2020 school year, at which the secondary-school students followed the progress of the undergraduate mentors’ research projects. We supplemented this in-depth exposure to the mentors’ research areas with a series of virtual documentary screenings, followed by discussions with invited researchers. Finally, the mentoring pairs presented a research paper of their choice orally, to help the school students develop their communication skills (with modest prizes for the top three, supplied by our department and judged by faculty members).
PsychOut was born at a particularly bleak point during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has continued this school year with a fresh group of enthusiastic volunteers. After we completed the programme, we realized that it wasn’t just a useful alternative to the ‘normal’ lab work we would have done had it not been for the pandemic. It addressed more general issues, such as how to develop ‘soft skills’ and become citizens who will help to solve problems facing our generation and our professions.
Building the framework
We started by recruiting fellow undergraduate psychologists in their final year, for a total of 30 mentors. We aimed to keep the workload light by limiting meetings to half an hour, with no preparation expected. Next, we signed up self-motivated secondary-school students (aged 16–19). Although we were open to all, we wanted to include students who might not otherwise have exposure to scientific career paths. We found that the most effective method of recruitment and of reaching diverse communities was to contact our former teachers directly.
We created advertisements that included PsychOut’s aims and an outline of the programme, for teachers to distribute during online classes. We tabulated our thesis topics and matched applicants to them according to the preferences they had mentioned on a sign-up form. Once pairs were matched, our team had a group discussion to share ideas about how to approach a first meeting with the secondary-school students and form a connection.
Making a connection
The main aim of that first meeting was to get to know one another and offer a positive first exposure to the research process. The age gap of only about five years and the informal format helped to encourage discussions about career and educational topics.
Although our primary motivation was to help the school students, we also grew as people. This was thanks to the challenges of our first academic mentoring experience, such as how to engage with the community about science, and how to answer curveball questions. Expressing complex scientific concepts clearly, identifying where knowledge gaps exist and devising strategies to fill them in are core mentoring competencies. Being a mentor gave many of us a sense of purpose and responsibility. Realizing that mentoring is possible even at early career stages was satisfying and empowering, and it is something we plan to continue in the future.
Broadening exposure to research
We were joined by a couple of graduate students who volunteered to organize the documentary screenings. The aim was to broaden the school students’ exposure to different research areas in psychology and neuroscience, such as vision, audition, touch and olfaction. We asked the graduate students to select and contact researchers in each area, who watched the films along with the students and then answered their questions.
Discussions arose out of each documentary’s theme, and ranged widely according to the school students’ curiosity, connecting research with their own experiences. For example, we explored the causes of loss of smell in COVID-19, sensory processing differences in autism, and how the sensory and motor systems are tuned and refined when we practise sports.
To engage the school students in critical thinking and scientific communication, we also invited them to take part in a virtual conference-like event at the end of the PsychOut programme. They learnt how to search for, read, interpret and summarize a journal article, with personal coaching from us, and then they presented it to the ‘conference’ and answered questions on it.
In an exit survey, the secondary-school students reported feeling surprised and encouraged that university students and professors would invest time in them. They expressed pride in learning to understand, present and discuss scientific literature. Several credited their mentors with helping to get them through a difficult school year, and they appreciated the insights into our university experiences as they consider their next steps. Whatever those turn out to be, our students will have had a positive interaction with the scientific community and will better understand the work we do.
PsychOut gave secondary-school students access to personal academic mentoring and provided learning opportunities for mentors and graduate students, while being low-intensity and easy to set up.
Although elements of the programme might need to be adapted for other disciplines, the basic structure remains broadly applicable. We hope that other groups will start their own initiatives of this kind, which, in the long term, will help to address representational imbalances in our profession.
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The authors declare no competing interests.