Thursday, October 29, 2009 for Scientists and Schools?

This is not a story about dating. Six weeks before October of 2009, the DC Coalition on Public Understanding of Science, a loosely knit group of science cheerleaders from associations, federal agencies, local schools and businesses decided to hold a Meet the Scientist program in October.

We’d been kicking the idea around for months and hoping someone would volunteer to make it happen and that person ended up being me. Why? Because for five years of elementary school I saw almost no science taught to my son. Because I’ve been working in public understanding of science for the last eight years in the DC metro area and we needed it.

Because I love challenges – except in dating. How’s that for an intro?

Ed Rock of the National Science Teachers’ Association is a tech guy and one of our COPUS volunteers. He built two databases for us – one for scientists and the other for schools. The scientists told us what area of science they specialized in, how comfortable they were talking to students and at what level, how to find them and when they were available.

The science teachers (some were schools but most were individual teachers) told us what type of science they were looking for, which class they wanted scientists for, and what their expectations were.

DC COPUS – which has a small core group of about six people – and then a network of maybe 100 more – sent out the request for scientists to everyone it knew. Our best response came from the National Institutes of Health and we don’t really know why. A couple of federal agencies got cold feet and didn’t help but some of their people signed up anyway.

Since we had no budget – a local news release distributed by PR Newswire was out of the question. So I created a local media list and sent out a release that didn’t really go anywhere. I also posted on a free site called Impact Wire which got us some attention.

What worked? Facebook. I posted notifications for teachers and scientists on every page I could find where scientists and science teachers gathered – particularly young ones. I posted on the college and grad school pages of those nearby. AAAS sent out notifications to its Facebook Science Careers’ fans in the Washington, DC area (you can segment your audiences now with the last redesign).

I called some of the bigger scientific organizations in DC and got help from some – the neuroscientists in particular.

For the schools I tried two tactics – in Arlington, VA I went to the science supervisor for the district and she sent it to her entire list of science teachers. In Montgomery County, I randomly selected schools off its web site (it was the only local district that had all its people information on line) and sent to their science leads. In the end, the Arlington administrator worked better. Now we know.

Then Ed the tech guy matched the scientists with the schools. One of our big concerns was we didn’t want to get in the middle of schools talking to scientists because we didn’t have enough people to manage it (there were three of us) and we didn’t want to be responsible for what happened.

We had just over 100 scientists sign up and 50 plus schools. I could have gotten far more schools but I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough scientists. In the end, Ed was able to give each school two choices of scientists and the suggestion that they could have them come in as a team. Emails were sent to scientists and schools telling them what they needed to know. We will do a follow-up survey to see what they thought of it.

One issue is that many scientists don't really know how to talk with kids. But since we had no time for training, we posted information from organizations who do public understanding of science on the COPUS web site and hoped they'd use it.

I promoted the first Meet the Scientist event at Takoma Park Middle School and got the local paper to cover it as well as the district. A second event held by Johns Hopkins a few days later got the Washington Post.

October is almost over and it’s working. Yippee. Can we duplicate it somewhere else and do it the same way? I’m not sure but I’m going to try.

Some links that will be helpful:

Press Release for Meet the Scientist

COPUS DC Facebook Page

Before Scientists Go to Schools - Resources

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