Thursday, January 6, 2011
Can Scientists Market Science to Kids?
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 behind these programs is to inspire students towards careers in these fields with the work that they do.
The problem is many scientists still don't know how to talk to the general public about their work, and today's students are even harder to communicate with. Raised on YouTube, Facebook and with a computer savvy that is far more sophisticated than many of the scientists who go to speak to them, students are far more likely to play Angry Birds on their cell phones than pay attention to a guest scientist.
How have the programs addressed this challenge?
Some Meet the Scientist efforts are training the scientists and/or giving them ground rules before they let them go out into the schools. The guidance I've seen is pretty good - PowerPoints are forbidden, they must bring physical examples of their work, do an experiment if they can, treat students as equals, etc.
Other programs have asked organizations to suggest scientists who are articulate and have experience talking to kids. But unless the scientists has done K-12 education sessions before, or have children that age, no one really knows how the scientists will do in front of a room full of kids.
Another approach that is gaining in popularity around the nation and throughout the world is sending science and health Nobel Laureates into high school to talk with kids. But many Nobel Laureates are older and male and haven't raised a child in a very long time. Rather than have an auditorium or room full of kids many of whom may not understand what the Laureates are discussion, the schools select their best and brightest which in essence is preaching to the choir.
The fact is an audience of school aged children is far tougher than a scientist's peers or even other adults to keep engaged. If the scientists are going to market science to the schools they need training and guidance.
Here are a few examples of what works and what doesn't according to my experience with these Meet the Scientist Programs.
Getting High School Kids to Come
I watched a scientist who helps wounded veterans learn to use new limbs 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 after wards 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. You know what - this works in companyies too.
Forgetting the general public is not a scientific audience
Interestingly, I saw the same scientist do a presentation a week later in front of a room full of adults at another location. 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.
It's Complicated - But the Math Kids will Get It
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.
Sell the Adventure and Remember It's Also Show and Tell
At a middle school, a scientist come in and talked 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 had very successful presentations. One filled the stage with smoke from dry ice and another sang rock songs with science lyrics which were actually very amusing and engaging.
What Does Work? Ask Bill Nye or the MythBusters
The fact is in order to get the attention of kids science has to be theatrical. 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 boring.
The Younger You Reach Kids With Science, the More It Can Help
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.
I have taught seventh grade and it's remarkable how despite the constant refrain that being smart isn't cool that permeates our public schools, you can still get them excited when the presenter and the subject is really engaging.
Elementary, Elementary, Elementary
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 Meet the Scientist 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.
Simply put, if the scientists can convince fourth graders that what they do is cool, everyone wins.
Don't Just Meet the Scientist Spend Time With Him or Her
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 them. 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 the Scientists but to know them well, and really understand their work.