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Graduate student participates in an Alternative Service Break and shares her love for science in Alaska

Group of NC State students pose together in front of Alaskan waterfall.

By Alex Hsain, MSE Ph.D. Candidate

“Woah, this is like magic.” A sixth grader beams as she dips a slip of photosensitive paper into a beaker of water. She watches the pattern she made moments ago with common classroom objects – rubber bands, a Lego brick, rainbow-colored beads, a wispy cotton ball, and a feather –transform into its negative image: the white becoming a deep Prussian blue, the blue a stark white. 

“It’s not magic,” I say, a smile spreading across my face, “it’s science.”

The awe-struck I witnessed in one sixth-grader was only one of many “lollipop” moments that I and a group of eight other NC State students experienced during our Alternative Spring Break experience. Earlier in the week, we had traveled over 2,000 miles to an island off the coast of mainland Alaska with the goal of participating in a cultural exchange with the local and indigenous Hoonah community. We joined the K-12 school as “peer educators”, helping keep students engaged in the classroom and sometimes even teaching a class or lab demonstration of our own. 

Though STEM outreach has always been an integral part of my life and is indeed one of the reasons why I decided to pursue my degrees in engineering, I admit that I still harbored some skepticism about the trip. I was skeptical that we – a group of privileged college students – could make a positive impact on these students over the course of a single week. But then at one of the pre-departure meetings, I met Adam Culley, the leader of the ASB program and radiant light of positivity and optimism. Adam believed in our personal power and the ability of individuals to make an impact, no matter how small. He shared with us this quote:

“We’ve made leadership about changing the world. And there is no world – there are only six billion understandings of it. And if you change one person’s understanding of it, one person’s understanding of what they’re capable of, one person’s understanding of how much people care about them, one person’s understanding of how powerful an agent for change they can be in this world, you change the whole thing.”

Though I was beginning to believe in the power of everyday leadership, I was struck by how severe a shift my outlook underwent during the trip. I was nervous on my first day in the Science classroom, but I found myself sitting up a little taller, my gaze fixed on the teacher, modeling my best classroom attentive behavior. Soon I took up more active roles by guiding students through their assignments and getting them to open up about what their plans looked like after graduation. I imbued every moment of my day with the intention to make a positive impact and it made all the difference. Something amazing – indeed, magical – happens when you spend time with a group of school-age students: they begin to look up to you. In the haze of final year graduate student life – data collection, conferences, and dissertation-writing – I had forgotten all the wonderful lollipop moments others had given me which now were the reason I walked the path of a doctoral candidate. In honor of the mentors who had instilled in me their love for science, I wanted to offer the students at Hoonah a part of myself in return.

Alex Hsain (center in striped sweater) with her cohort during the 2022 Alternative Spring Break in Hoonah, Alaska
Alex Hsain (center in striped sweater) with her cohort during the 2022 Alternative Spring Break in Hoonah, Alaska

I brought an activity related to my cleanroom research: photolithography, or patterning with light. Made by former graduate student Dr. Jun Yan as part of the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network (RTNN), the lab activity would allow students to make their own photolithography “masks” using photosensitive Sunprint paper using standard classroom supplies. When an object was placed on the paper, it would block out the light and prevent a crosslinking reaction. When a student dipped the paper into water, the unreacted chemical would dissolve, and the crosslinked parts would remain. Magic. 

“Nanotechnology is about using the properties of really small things causing a big difference, like what you saw happen to your paper when you exposed it to UV light,” I said before the lab began.

One of the student’s hands shot up. “I know what nanotechnology is! It’s what makes Spiderman’s suit super sticky. I want to study nanotechnology when I grow up.” 

Though the scientific activities in Ms. Darcy’s Science class were a highlight of the ASB trip, there were many other moments in Hoonah that inspired me. At the end of every school day, the sixth graders in Ms. Heather’s Tglinit class would lead a traditional Tlingit dance starting in her classroom. The students would serpentine through the halls – dancing, drumming and singing – all the way through the school and into the gymnasium. Hearing their song reverberating through the school every day was a powerful reminder of the honor Hoonah students carried for their culture and tradition. 

Aerial view of Hoonah School, red buildings with green roofs, thin layer of melting snow on ground with mountain ridge and evergreen trees in background.
Hoonah School

“Our elders – they will not be here forever. I will not be here forever. That is why it is your responsibility to carry on our heritage. But do not worry if you forget the words because it is always inside of you.” Ms. Heather would integrate these powerful life lessons seamlessly into her classroom lecture. I was taken aback: I had never witnessed such ardent love and reverence for culture in a classroom. Everywhere I looked in the halls of the Hoonah school had messages and words written in Tlingit. In the science classrooms descriptions of native species of salmon, herring, starfish, and local wildlife were painted on the walls. These small messages combined with traditional song and dance practices every day created a beautiful integration of culture, the environment, and traditional school life at the Hoonah public school.

Witnessing how the teachers and students in Hoonah embraced their native culture with such pride made me feel prouder of who I was, too. As a child I found myself plagued with an internal clash of identities – my Middle Eastern heritage conflicted with my desire to be seen as American. I found myself actively suppressing certain parts of my cultural identity: not speaking my native language of Arabic, hiding the fact that I abstained from certain foods, and even more drastic measures like deciding to go by my most “western” middle name. I was so happy to see the students in Hoonah embracing who they were with such pride and glee, joyfully becoming the torchbearers of their culture into the next generation.

These experiences will make my Alternative Service Break was one I will never forget. Not only did I rediscover my passion for being a STEM educator and reclaim my power in making a positive impact, but I also became more confident in my own identity as a first-generation American scientist. Though I went to Hoonah to inspire students to become the best version of themselves, I was pleasantly surprised to find that in return, I became a better version of myself, too. 

I’d like to thank the Materials Science & Engineering department for financially supporting my trip to Hoonah, Alaska. If you are a graduate student looking to challenge yourself and become a stronger leader, then I recommend participating in the Alternative Service Break program at NC State!

This post was originally published in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.