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Connecting scientists with students – and teachers – can have substantial educational benefits. But how do schools establish these contacts, and once the contact is made, what is the best way to make use of the experience? 

Making connections

Scientists have busy work schedules, but at the Science Learning Hub (SLH), we’ve found that many science experts genuinely enjoy connecting with school students. While some scientists are willing to make local school visits, Skype and other online communication tools make it possible to connect with scientists across the country, removing the barriers associated with time and travel.

Crown research institutes, tertiary institutions, museums and regional and local councils usually have communications team contact details on their websites. Email them with specific questions or requests, and it is likely they will be able to locate an expert. You can also contact the Hub, and we’ll use our extensive social media outreach to try and find someone to help.

Preparing students beforehand regarding interview techniques and etiquette serves multiple purposes. It gives students the time (and the purpose) to develop their science knowledge. It also helps to establish a professional relationship between the students and the science expert. The techniques are effective for both face-to-face and online interactions. Read on to see how a Napier primary school used these techniques to deepen student engagement in science.

A local event of significance

The New Zealand company Rocket Lab chose Mahia Peninsula as its primary launch site. Mahia Peninsula is a remote area with a low population and minimal air and sea traffic, making it an ideal site for frequent launches. Its location is about 2 hours’ drive from Napier, so for the students at Napier Central School, the launch site is practically in their backyard. 

The school has a relationship with Rachel, the SLH media specialist. Knowing that Rachel worked with Rocket Lab in 2010, school staff accepted an offer from Rachel to work with a group of year 5 and 6 students who were learning about space. Together, they were able to arrange a Skype interview with Naomi Altman, a Senior Avionics Systems Engineer at Rocket Lab.

Exploring angles of interest, underlying science concepts and science communication

Before the Skype interview, Rachel explored science communication with the students. They worked in groups to find an angle of interest in order to create their own science communication work about Rocket Lab. The students had numerous ideas – the history of Rocket Lab, a biography of Peter Beck, the engineering innovations of Rocket Lab and the Mahia launch site. 

Teachers used this time to talk about the underlying science concepts such as:

  • forces and how rockets work 
  • satellites (the rocket’s payload) 
  • types of orbits (Rocket Lab can tailor the rocket launch for particular missions) 
  • uses for satellites that might be sent up by the Electron rocket.

Parallel to their learning about science concepts, students also learned some aspects of the nature of science and science communication, for example:

  • the importance of being able to translate scientific endeavour into easy to understand language for an audience of peers and whānau
  • the need to find out all they could prior to interviewing Naomi so they could ask good questions and use their time with her well
  • the need for accuracy and how they could check that the sources they use are trustworthy
  • image use and copyright.

Rachel supplied the teachers with links to the Hub’s curated Pond and Pinterest resources on satellites, space, rockets, forces and a special a curation of recent news items on Rocket Lab and Mahia set up specifically for Napier Central School. (Contact the SLH if you’d like us to curate resources for your school.)

Interview techniques and etiquette 

A week before the Skype call with Naomi, Rachel and the students met to compile their interview questions. First, they grouped the questions in sections – for example, general questions on technology, questions specific to the Electron rocket technology and questions about the Mahia launch site. They also checked their questions were open ended. Lastly, the students grouped their questions in A or B categories. The A category questions were given higher priority as they dealt with information that could not be readily accessed online. The B category included nice-to-know questions or questions that could be answered with research.

Rachel and the students also covered interview techniques and etiquette. They decided on some specifics:

  • Sending Naomi a list of the questions prior to the Skype interview. 
  • Standing up to address Naomi so she could identify who was asking the question.
  • Speaking clearly.
  • Recognising that Naomi’s time was very precious – ask questions rather than tell stories.

End projects

The children took notes from their session with Naomi, recording information they felt was pertinent to their own individual projects.

It was great to see how the students were able to build on their own curiosity – shaping their questions according to their own interests and then tailoring their projects to reflect this.

Rachel Douglas, Science Learning Hub

Some students found that while preparing and compiling their projects, they had further questions. In this case, Rachel was able to follow up by emailing the communications team who worked with Naomi. We recommend that when you're arranging a Skype or school visit with an expert, that you discuss options around future contact in regards to follow up questions.

Nature of science

Research shows that contact with scientists and hearing about their lives expands student understanding of who scientists are, what scientists do and who can be a scientist. In addition, these experiences inspire students’ future career choices in science.

Related content

We’ve taken some of the key points out of this article and put them into a framework. Use the activity Communicating with scientists – interview techniques and etiquette if you plan to work with a science expert.

If you are a scientist or science expert who's been invited to a school and you are feeling a tad nervous about the experience, read the article School visits – hints for scientists. It contains some useful advice!

Acknowledgement

The Science Learning Hub acknowledges the research assistance provided by the students of Room 13 at Napier Central School.

 

    Published 13 February 2018