Creating Volunteer Networks to Support Educational Programming with Pinhead


Pinhead Institute


Volunteer Engagement
Educational Programming

The Opportunity

Pinhead Institute is a 21-year-old organization focused on delivering high-quality science technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programming to students and schools across Colorado. In 2006 they became the first exclusively program-based Affiliate in the network.

The partnership was built on a desire to connect eager students to talented Smithsonian professionals working in the STEM field. Today, Pinhead has developed a suite of high-impact programs that are anchored in that connection.

To many people, Telluride, Colorado is a vacation town – a place with beautiful vistas that serve as the backdrop for visitors as they hike in the summer and ski in the winter. And it is that! But thousands of families call Telluride and its surrounding communities home year round. Since its founding, the team at Pinhead has worked to bridge those two networks to serve students.

A group of young people and an adult play on a wooden sculpture in a mountainous landscape
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The Vision

Sarah Holbrooke, Pinhead’s Executive Director, started her career in journalism – working in environments from disaster zones to Katie Couric’s talk show – and she deeply understood the power of just making the “ask.” When she took on her new role at Pinhead, she applied that same approach to this new role, and helped accelerate impact across the state.

There is a unique intersection of communities in Telluride: professionals traveling to Telluride for vacation or conferences, STEM-focused college students looking for something meaningful to engage with, and an extraordinary and diverse group of K-12 teachers + students. Sarah and her team thought that if they could better understand the needs of these diverse constituents, align incentives, and immerse themselves in relationship building, they could generate a sustainable and impactful set of educational programs.

The Team

Pinhead is a small but mighty organization with just three full-time staff. But the engine of their success is a combination of volunteers, school partners, and part-time staff. Pinhead understands the needs of each of these stakeholders and honors their expertise. So what role does each play?

A group of people stand in an intersection of a mountain town holding a Pinhead Institute banner

Pinhead Team

Pinhead’s internal team is made up of educators, both full- and part-time, who work with the professionals to translate complex concepts into age appropriate and relevant learning experiences.

STEM Professionals

Pinhead is invested in building their networks both locally and nationally to bring in a diverse roster of individuals who work in physics, biomedical engineering, genetics, and much more!

Schools + Students

Pinhead serves schools in Telluride but also invests heavily in reaching rural schools that stretch all the way into the southwest corner of Colorado.

Part-Time Staff

As a smaller institution, Pinhead relies on passionate, part-time staff and volunteers. Their recruitment focuses on college undergraduates and graduate students who are passionate about the STEM field, want to give back, and are enthusiastic about meeting leaders in their industry. 

The Process

Two of Pinhead’s core programs – Scholars in Schools + Punk Science – are centered on bringing STEM professionals directly to students, whether in the classroom or for extra-curricular programming. Here’s how they do it.


Understand the Needs

In order to make program initiatives like this work, Pinhead really had to understand the distinct needs of the different school partners + communities. They invested time in learning about the needs of the teachers and students. They asked key questions like: Who are your students? Do they want to go to college? Do they want more vocational training? What are their caregivers interested in? Where are the gaps in science education in your students’ schools? Will students come to a weekend program?

A student peers through a microscope at four petri dishes
A man in a blue flight jumpsuit stands in front of a line of young people laying on the floor with their legs raised on chairs


Identifying the Professionals

One of Pinhead’s strongest assets is the network of STEM professionals that they’ve built over time. They started with bigger hubs of STEM talent like universities + research labs, as well as Smithsonian. And then used the strength of their relationship building to expand on those networks, leveraging existing relationships for referrals and recommendations, as well as keeping a keen ear to the ground to hear about new visiting professionals.


Prepare the Session

Once the speaker has been identified and agreed to participate, Pinhead works closely with the professional to create a powerful learning experience for students. The preparation begins with a conversation to align on a relevant and exciting topic. During this conversation, the expert can share any materials or “props” that would complement the learning. From there, Pinhead educators generate an interactive lesson based on the speaker’s expertise and share back with the expert for review. The Pinhead team isn’t afraid to provide feedback, making suggestions and guiding the expert to ensure the experience is meaningful for the students.

A male teacher leans over a table of students an points to a red post it note on a piece of paper
A woman scientist standing in front of a cartoon mural does an experiment with fire


Activate the Experience

Pinhead staff are always onsite during these learning experiences to support the speaker and to ensure the learning is meaningful. The staff member even wears a lab coat to make sure students see them as an additional educator in the room who can jump in to support or translate more complicated concepts into age-appropriate language or terms. The partnership between the expert and the educator is a core asset of the programming!

The Results

Pinhead has tracked the students involved in their internship program over the last twenty years: 100% have enrolled in a four year college, 80% have majored in a STEM field, and 83% are now working in a STEM field.

A white boy plays with a robotic car

The Challenges

Understanding Needs

When Sarah Holbrooke first started at Pinhead, she realized the importance of really listening to the needs of schools and communities she hoped to serve. As she dove into partnership building during her first months on the job, she encountered some pushback from administrators + teachers who didn’t feel their voices or their students were being valued and respected. Sarah changed her approach and spent the entire first year on a listening tour, sitting in the back of classrooms, and meeting with school leaders and teachers to genuinely understand their needs. This kind of relationship building and understanding led to more robust and reciprocal partnerships. Also, by showing up in a community, the families who live there start to trust that the Pinhead professionals are looking out for their children and are more likely to enroll their students in various afterschool and summer programs like the high school internship.

Finding Professionals

While Pinhead has cultivated a wide network of STEM leaders, they did notice that they were bringing in fewer women than men. They wanted to rectify that imbalance so that young girls could see themselves in this dynamic professional pathway. Pinhead’s leadership made a commitment: for every man they put on a stage or a panel, they had to put a woman on stage, as well. The team did their research and found 500 Women Scientists, a grassroots organization + network of women in STEM. The Pinhead team actively uses this network to conduct outreach to expand for their pool of experts. 

The Toolkit

The Pinhead team prides themselves on being resourceful + agile. As a small team with a big vision, they have to be. They keep their tools and approaches simple to accommodate the dynamic nature of their work. So what do they use?

Simple (and free!) Tracking Tools

The team leverages the Google Suite – Google docs and Google spreadsheets – to keep track of their speaker network and plan for classroom sessions. The accessibility of these tools makes it easier to onboard part-time staff and interns who are only in town for the summer to support the work. If you need some inspiration, check out this Volunteer Outreach Tracker template and make it your own!

The Courage to Ask

If your programs center on consistent contributions of volunteers’ time + talent, you can’t be afraid to make the ask. One of the primary factors in Pinhead’s success is their ability to reach out and make connections. They see opportunity everywhere – conferences, universities, existing professional networks, friends-of-friends. As Sarah Holbrooke puts it, “Part of it is just asking – part of it is just thinking that maybe someone else wants to say yes to your question”

We’d love to hear from you!

Do you have a powerful story of successful community engagement or collaboration you’d like to share? Or do you want to connect and learn more about community engagement resources and supports?

Reach out to your National Outreach Manager. They’d love to connect and share ideas!

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