Over the past several years, a growing number of trade associations, foundations and science and engineering companies have started major efforts to get scientists into schools and hopefully inspire students with what they do. The goal, of course, is to get kids interested in pursuing careers in scientific fields, by showing them just how cool science is.
But I wonder - no matter how well meaning, how much do these Meet the Scientist programs really do what they are intended to? It seems to me, there are deep flaws in these valiant efforts, that if addressed could make Meet the Scientist programs far more effective. Here are some of the challenges:
They are aimed at kids who've already made up their minds about science. The vast majority of these programs are aimed at older kids even though research by NSF and other leading science and education organizations, shows that high school is way to late. If you don't capture a kid's interest in science by late elementary school (and I've seen this with my own children), or at the very least early middle school, they're not going to suddenly decide it's the right field for them.
Most of the scientists who volunteer have limited training in explaining science to kids. Some of these Meet the Scientist programs have presentations on the science of NASCAR, Thanksgiving dinner, chocolate, bionic body parts and other topics linking science to things students can immediately relate too. The scientists bring video, and props, and their enthusiasm is infectious. But far more scientists show up at schools with a PowerPoint, some grainy photos and a monotone delivery. Maybe it would be better to select scientists for these programs who have children and are deeply engaged with them. Explaining what you do to your child is great training.
There's not enough interaction between student and scientist. Despite years of emphasis on inquiry-based learning, most scientists don't think to do experiments with kids for a one-time presentation. And if they do, it's often up on a stage rather than in the middle of a class, so students cannot touch, hear, smell, and see up close what the scientist is doing. Oh Q&As are always added, and the kids do respond, but one class the presenter I saw actually came right out and asked the kids what he could do better. Their response: Show us, don't just tell us.
The scientists often end up in front of students who already love science. Well meaning educators want their best and brightest in Meet the Scientist programs and who can blame them? They want to inspire, they want their students to ask insightful questions, they dread students' talking, not paying attention or dead silence during the Q&As. So many of the students who end up in the room are already science and math kids. Special attention should be paid to gathering a diverse, and well-prepped group of students so they can make the most of the experience.
They are one-shot visits. While there is always value in a real-life scientist talking to students about the wonders of his or her field, we have to remember these are kids. Most adults have experiences they can look back upon that they can tell you influenced what they decided to do with their lives. But in many cases it wasn't a singular moment, it was a mentor, or a summer program, a teacher who inspired and encouraged them over time, or school work they turned in that they were particularly proud of and showcased for. The more effective Meet the Scientist programs in my opinion, are the ones where a professional is dedicated to a school for a minimum of a semester or better yet a whole year. This way, while students may not engage at the outset, there will points over time, where they can.
What do you think?
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