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  • 04/20/17

    Nicole Gagnon receives President’s Student Leadership & Service Award

Co-founder of SciMentors, teaching adults science in the community

Nicole Gagnon, a fifth-year graduate student with Professor William Tolman, has been named a winner of the 2017 President’s Student Leadership and Service Award. This award recognizes the accomplishments and contributions of outstanding student leaders at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. It is presented to approximately one-half of one percent of the student body for their exceptional leadership and service to the University of Minnesota and the surrounding community.

Gagnon is co-founder and co-president of SciMentors, which is an active group of graduate students and post-doctorates that are teaching science to adult community learners who are preparing for their general educational development (GED) degrees or involved in other adult literacy programs. SciMentors provides hands-on science lessons to supplement the curriculum and mentor adult learners. Most of the students are immigrants or refugees and range in age from 20 to 60+. You can read more about SciMentors and its community outreach.

Nicole Gagnon and Anna Komor
SciMentors co-founders Nicole Gagnon and Anna Komor, Ph.D.

Volunteering about 25 hours per month, Gagnon is responsible for leading the 30+ SciMentors volunteers, determining schedules, planning and reviewing curriculum, and teaching lessons. She also works with a leadership board to discuss ways to expand the program, find funding sources, maintain a one-on-one tutoring program, and develop a website and social media campaign. With the success of the program, Gagnon and co-founder Anna Komor, Ph.D., have submitted a journal article describing the program and its success.

SciMentors create and deliver hands-on science lessons that last 1 to 1.5 hours. They teach in each classroom two to three times a month, year round. Some of the skill-based lessons encompass ecosystems for earth and space science, compounds and solutions for physical sciences, and cells and cell division for life science. Komor said that they try to create experiments using materials that the students may find or use in their everyday lives such as DNA extraction from strawberries to learn about genetics. They actively engage students in the discussions, asking them to write what they know about strawberries, what they know about their DNA, and questions that they have about DNA. The experiments and demonstrations use household materials and, if possible, plants that they would grow in their gardens or that might be native to their countries of origin.

Gagnon is also an active leader in her research group and with Women in Science & Engineering (WISE), including helping with its annual Cool Chemistry outreach event for girls in 7th and 8th grades. 

Through her volunteer experiences, Gagnon has learned a lot about leadership. “I have often misconstrued being a leader with being ‘in charge’ or doing the bulk of the work, but over the past few years, I have truly learned what it means to be a leader,” she said. “Leadership isn’t just organizing or managing a group; it is about inspiring people to do the right thing, encouraging teamwork to reach a common goal, motivating group members to think outside the box, and helping to achieve and maintain a vision.” 

Her experiences have also helped her understand and appreciate the diversity of her community and given her meaningful exposure to different cultures. Most importantly, she has come to deeply appreciate some of the struggles that other people have to go through and the importance of education for all.

“Volunteering with SciMentors has shown me what true perseverance, hard work, and dedication look like,” Gagnon said. “Our students, no matter their age, have an immense drive to better their lives and their families’ lives through education. These students inspire me to push myself harder every day and to be thankful for the opportunities in my life. I have also pushed myself to learn more about how to be an ally and advocate for our immigrant students and they have taught me so much about what it important in life.” 

Gagnon will be honored by the College of Science & Engineering, Monday, May 1, and at an awards banquet, Thursday, Oct. 19.