A number of scientific organizations these days are creating Meet the Scientist programs and sending scientists and engineers out into public schools, science cafes, and other venues with the hope that they can drum up interest in pursuing careers in these fields. The idea is students will come to an assembly or a festival or some other place and be inspired by the excitement of learning how scientists work.

Some of these groups are training the scientists on how to talk to the general public, while others are just pushing them out the door. AAAS and NSF have a program where they train scientists to explain their dissertations and work in plain language, but it is mostly aimed at getting scientists to explain their research to potential funders. AAAS has recently developed more educational opportunities for scientists who go into the schools which is helpful. Who knows public understanding of science better than they do?

Other Meet the Scientist efforts have asked organizations to nominate scientists for these programs who are articulate and showy with the hopes of weeding out those who show up with a PowerPoint. This certainly helps, but there are many different reasons why an organization will nominate a specific scientist for a program like this. And unless the scientist has done K-12 educaiton sessions before, they don't really know what she'll be like in front of a room full of kids.

Another approach that is gaining in popularity around the nation and world is sending science and health Nobel Laureates to talk with kids. But many Nobel Laureates are older and male and haven't raised a child in a very long time. So what happens is the schools self select out the kids who aren't really interested in science, and put their best and brightest in the room.

The fact is an audience of school aged children are far tougher than peers or even other adults. Here's some of what I've learned from these Meet the Scientist programs.

The ability of scientists to explain their work to lay people is all over the place.

This fall I watched a scientist who does really cool stuff - he makes body parts for Iraq and other war veterans that can literally function like real ones via signals from the brain. I first saw him in front of a room full of high school students who were really engaged with his talk. He brought props so the kids could touch and see them and left a lot of time for Q&A which went very well.

I discovered afterwards that the real reason the students showed up for this lunch time event was the free pizza promised by the teacher. So that's a key learning - feed the kids and you'll get much better attendance and participation.

Interestingly, I saw the same scientist do a presentation a week later in front of a room full of adults at a local museum. This time he had no props - he had PowerPoint. I couldn't follow a lot of what he was saying and I already knew his research. By the end, at least half the people in the audience had walked out. If he had used the same approach he did with high school students, I bet they would have stayed.

At another high school there was a mathematician scheduled to speak - a rather well liked and famous one - and I wanted to get some attention for the program by inviting local media. I had a reporter convinced it was a good idea to come (sold the prestige angle) but then he asked me questions that I couldn't answer - basically what the heck is it that this guy does.

I called the professor's university PR office and asked for general audience information on his research and a bio on him. The communications person had no idea what the mathematician did and no materials that I could understand. She was supposed to get in touch with the professor and get back to me. I never heard a word from either of them and the reporter didn't go.  

At a middle school, we had a really cool scientist come in and talk about her work in archeology - she basically dug up dinosaur bones in pursuit of new and older dinosaurs. The kids asked if they could see them and she hadn't brought any. She also had a PowerPoint which was OK - at least it tried to convey the spirit of adventure in searching for life from millions of years ago. But by the end girls were nudging each other, and boys were doing that I can't sit here one second longer uncomfortable thing that boys do.

To be fair, the scientists were giving of their time and some did really cool stuff. One filled the stage with smoke from dry ice and another sang rock songs with science lyrics which were actually very amusing and engaging.

The fact is in order to get the attention of kids science has to be theatrical. They're talking to a generation raised on video games, YouTube and visual stimulus everywhere they turn. There have to be wows and scientists jumping up and down and a sense of excitement in the room that is palpable. If the scientists aren't going to get training before they go into a classroom at the very least they should watch a couple episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy. He knows how to get the attention of kids.

Without that, despite best intentions, many scientists end up reinforcing the notion that science and math are too hard and boring.

Another issue with these Meet the Scientist programs is many of them are aimed at older kids. High school kids already know what they like and don't like - you're not going to take an 11th grader and suddenly convince him he wants to be a physicist with an hour long talk. Middle school kids are pretty cynical too, although they will listen if the presentation is fun and interesting.

Elementary school teachers, on the other hand and to this day, despite No Child Left Behind, etc., teach very little science. And they are desperate for it. But most of the programs are aimed at older kids. Much of the reason why is that the scientists are uncomfortable talking to really little kids. So this is one area where training for scientists is really needed, and could provide a great deal of value.

So one option for these Meet the Scientist programs is to really focus on elementary school kids and have the scientists dedicate more time than an hour to it. There is a program in the VA, MD, DC area where retired scientists make a commitment to support an elementary school class for a semester. They go into the classroom about six times and get to know the teacher and the kids well. The teachers love it and the kids get to not just Meet a Scientist but to know one well, and really understand his work.

Thoughts anyone?