Education research clearly shows that there is tremendous value in having scientists connect with students. When students see that scientists are real people like themselves, they are more likely to participate in science and consider science careers.
Teachers also benefit. As experts, scientists are able to clearly explain science concepts and provide real-world contexts and applications. Non-specialist teachers can learn alongside the students and become more confident. Teachers report that having an expert discuss controversial or ethical issues allows them to maintain their neutrality and facilitate discussions rather than having to present viewpoints.
On a broader note, society also benefits as these interactions help to grow students’ scientific literacy – the understanding required for informed decision making and participation.
Whether you’ve been invited to spend time in a classroom or to participate in an online discussion, we hope the following information provides some practical ideas and helps to put you at ease.
Dealing with the scary stuff – student behaviour, interest and keeping to time
Working with young people can seem daunting, but remember that you are an invited guest. Teachers are responsible for student behaviour. If students become noisy or disruptive, pause and make eye contact with the teacher. Students find hands-on learning exciting. If you plan to do an activity, discuss this before your visit.
Engaging students is key to a successful visit. Try to section your talk into small blocks – using images and/or short videos can be useful. Including activities, storytelling, quizzes and interactive discussions with the group can add opportunities for learning. Engaging is different to entertaining. You are in the classroom to share your science knowledge. The human aspect of your work as a scientist is the important thing.
Don’t worry if you finish your presentation earlier than planned. Teachers are experts at filling in time gaps. If it appears that your activity may go over time, check with the teacher to see how to proceed. Teachers may be able to continue the activity after the break, or students can do Q and A and/or follow-up conversations via email or Skype.
Go in prepared
If applicable, request a set of questions before the visit to give you an indication of students’ knowledge level and interests. The Hub has a framework that helps students develop and organise questions that teachers can use.
Think about ‘what next’ resources you can offer for use after your visit. Chances are there will be really interested students that you may not be able to deal with at the time. Are there websites, videos, open days or exhibits you can direct them to?
Prepare the students and teachers
Students are more likely to engage with the topic if they know a bit about it. A short video about the topic, an article or even a picture book that teachers can use prior to your visit should stimulate interest. Consider emailing a short list of vocabulary terms you will be using so students are familiar with them when you speak.
If you are doing an activity, let the teacher know if you will require any resources, but be aware that primary and intermediate schools often do not have specialist scientific equipment. If you are doing an online visit, test out the technology beforehand.
Hints for planning
The primary outcome for most classroom visits is to make science accessible and interesting. With this is mind, moderate your expectations about what students will learn. Sharing your enthusiasm is more important than precision. One scientist told us that his philosophy when working with students is, “Let it go, close enough is enough.”
If you would like to do an activity but you’re not sure where to start, ask the classroom teacher – there is often a wealth of experience in the staffroom. Alternatively, conduct an internet search or contact us at the Hub.
When you do an activity, keep in mind that things often take longer than you might expect. Consider doing the activity as a demonstration, using student helpers. Student groups can replicate the activity after your visit. This may also help with safety considerations.
Classroom visits really do make a difference to student learning. The article Connecting with scientists relates how student learning was sparked after an online interview with a Rocket Lab engineer.
The article Scientists are real people also gives some insight into the power of scientists connecting with students.
Research scientists expect empirical data. The following resources identify the value of linking students with scientists.
Bolstad, R., & Hipkins, R. (2008). Seeing yourself in science: The importance of the middle school years. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
Falloon, G., & Trewern, A. (2012). Developing school-scientist partnerships: Lessons for scientists from Forests-of-Life. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 22(1), 11–24. doi:10.1007/s10956-012-9372-1
Rennie, L. J. (2012). A very valuable partnership: Evaluation of the Scientists in Schools Project 2011–2012. Dickson, ACT: CSIRO Education.