What Model Works Best for Meet the Scientist Programs?
    By Aimee Stern | July 31st 2011 10:28 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    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?


    I generally think the premise is flawed - we spend billions in taxpayer money trying to convince smart kids who may grow up to be doctors that they should be scientists instead.   Long before there was this zeal about government-funded science outreach, it still got done.   A Manga Guide To Relativity may only be reaching kids who like science also but it isn't publicly funded.

    Smart kids will go into science or something else - unless we ban both abortion and birth control we are not going to keep up with Asia in numbers of people born who may become scientists but the American obsession with 'leadership' is why advocates insist on wasting billions of dollars.   

    You helped Larry with the USA Science&Engineering Festival - for the dollars spent, don't you think you were far more efficient than the NSF spending $600K on a video game about wolves no one played?  Imagine what you and other groups could do with the $4 billion a year that goes into STEM by all these government groups.

    On Meet The Scientist programs specifically, I don't know why a scientist would be motivated to do one.   If the class is not a science one, a person is spending their time talking to kids with a sense of entitlement who don't want to be there.  I think better MTS programs are where experts go and discuss the pros and cons or current policy-related science issues.  Engaged parents lead to engaged kids more effectively than a science presentation in school, right?
    These are all good critiques of these programs.  The problem I see with them is that they fail to address the root reason that so few students are interested in science. 
    It all goes back to the image of scientist as being awkward looking, freaky, boring, monotone, stiff, and generally uncool.  This image is pervasively pedaled to students from age 0 onward by the media.  The proof of this is the increase in numbers of people who want to be crime scene investigators.  CSI and NCIS etc have made that look really cool. 

    The bottom line is science has to look cool.  It has to be something that when a young student says they want to do it they will not be ostracized for it.  

    This same problem can be addressed by the way science is taught in elementary school.  The people teaching it are not science minded folks.  They follow the book and their is rote recitation of dry facts.   Science has to look like an active fun thing to do not just allot of reading books already written.   

    So how to make science look cool to young students?   One way would be to, as you said, send the right people to do these presentations.  People who will be interactive and engaging and not bring power point slides to a school (maybe a video of something they do).  Another might be to have scientist come there and just talk about their lives aside from being scientist.  Show that scientist are not just one or two dimensional. 

    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Gerhard Adam
    It all goes back to the image of scientist as being awkward looking, freaky, boring, monotone, stiff, and generally uncool.  This image is pervasively pedaled to students from age 0 onward by the media.  The proof of this is the increase in numbers of people who want to be crime scene investigators.  CSI and NCIS etc have made that look really cool.
    That's not particularly relevant, since that's only hype.  The question isn't how many want to become CSI's.  It's how many actually do.  If that doesn't change, then the marketing doesn't matter.
    Mundus vult decipi
    It's relevant because that "hype" is what young children listen to and are bombarded with every day all day. 

    NCIS, NCIS:LA, CSI, CSI:Miami, CSI: New York, CSI: Baton Rouge....joking about the last one.   That's had a real effect on how forensic scientist are percieved.  They went from being goulish folks who work with dead bodies to being super cool.  Now young students want to be like them. 

    If you want 100 young children to grow up to be scientist we need 1000 who start out wanting to be scientist.  Right now we get 10 children (or less really) and only one will actually stick with it.  The rest are berated about how uncool it is or whatever and choose something else.

    Don't underestimate the need and desire of young children and teens to need to be accepted and liked by their peer's.  They do stupid dumb things to earn approval all the time. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Gerhard Adam
    I have to disagree with the idea of making science look "cool" or the general marketing tone of it.  Science requires far too much time and effort and doesn't often result in much reward, so to try and market this to students seems flawed from the beginning.

    The people responsible for generating such interest and enthusiasm are the teachers to whom these students are exposed to for 12 years.  If they fail, then it seems like a last-ditch effort to tag some poor scientist to suddenly try to redeem such long-term failed efforts.

    Perhaps I'm just being cynical, but this type of marketing always sounds like .... "go ahead, commit years of your life to study and if you're lucky, you might actually get a job".  You want to produce a lot of scientists?  Pay them.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The problem arises in grade school long before pay is an issue.   The (Western/ US) media sells science and scientist using certain tropes and idioms which are not affirming to say the very least.  By the time someone is five they have definite opinions about scientist.  The children have firm ideas of what scientist look like, how they act, and what they do.  This is the reason that such programs are needed.

    Science is written off as being for people who the children think look like this:

    Those children grow up to be adults. Adults who then think scientist look like this...

    ...kind of like Jeff Goldblum in "Independence day".

    (Or worse yet those adults had Theodore John Kaczynski in mind?)

    With children being bombarded with these kinds of images again and again, we need to do something.  The most powerful thing we can do as scientist is get to know as many people as possible to counter the negative stereotype.  (That's what transgender people try to do.  Should we let Springer determine our public image?) 

    We can't expect teachers who are as effected by this negative imagery to undo the damage by themselves.

    Strong evidence for my assertion that US media/pop culture is very much to blame: The children of immigrants and immigrant children are the top 70% of US science students. 

    People who have not been exposed to the anti intellectual science hating (yet oddly technology craving) society of the contemporary United States of America  go into science and do very well.  While the best and brightest Americans do not.

    Sure people who are not committed will be weeded out well before graduate school.  Sure not every one of the people who may meet a scientist and decide to be a scientist will be Einstein or Pasture.  That does not make the outreach effort a waste of time.
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.