Speaking to a room full of scientists is one thing. Standing before a class of kidswhether kindergartners or high-school seniorsis something else. With kids, Q-and-A isn't just an after-talk interval, it's a way of life.
If you have an hour to share with a class, how can you make the time count? After plenty of trial-and-error, science educators and savvy volunteers have some hard-earned tips to offer. "Talking to kids can be a great boost for any scientist," says Nancy Moreno, head of the HHMI -funded Science Education Leadership Fellows Program (SELF) at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "And these are skills you can learn."
To give a great talk, study up on your students. You could probably guess that fourth graders aren't ready to run gelsbut did you know that even eighth graders have a hard time grasping the complexities of DNA?
Scientists often overestimate a class's general sophistication. During one recent project, for instance, Moreno and colleagues developed lesson plans for elementary-school students. They were particularly pleased with a model that used different kinds of popcornbutter, cheese and caramelto show that air is a mix of gases, with each variety representing a different gas. The teachers who used the model reported that the kids were certainly fascinated, but some took home an unexpected lesson. "Most of the first-grade children confidently reported that air was made out of popcorn," Moreno says. "You have to learn to be so humble."
So before you painstakingly mold raspberry Jell-O into a replica of a cell membrane, make a phone call. "The teacher knows the students best," says Laura Streichert, head of the speaker's bureau at the Washington Association for Biomedical Research in Seattle. "If you make the teacher your partner, your talk has a much better chance of hitting the target."
Researchers can check out the National Science Education Standards to see what's typically taught at each grade level. Keep in mind, however, that the standards are general benchmarksand schools vary widely in meeting them. "Even if you take third or fourth grade as your level and gear your talk to that, it will not be universally understandable to kids of that age," cautions Jon Levitt, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Immunology at Baylor College of Medicine and a frequent grade-school visitor. "There's a big difference between schools, particularly those with students from different socioeconomic backgrounds." Again, a teacher's insight is key.
Whenever David Schneider, a molecular biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, climbs the steps to a local grade school, he brings along extra visitors: bugs. "I call them 'extreme insects,' " Schneider says. "Scary ones, huge ones, really beautiful ones." Shopping the Internet, Schneider buys dried beetles and butterflies for kids to hold. "It's a way of breaking into bug biology," he says, and it works. "I've been amazed by how quickly young kids can pick things up. They're curious about everything."
Alive or dead, real or pretend, props are a great way to reach kids. Just ask Eric Chudler, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has been volunteering monthly at local schools for about five years. By now, he's got props down to, well, a science. Chudler brings in six jars, each holding the brain of a different animal, from a cow to a cat. He describes the differencesin brain size and patterns of folds, for instancebetween species, and then asks kids to identify the brain in each jar. "Some kids say it's gross," Chudler says, "but most of them think it's really cool."
Even simple props can jazz up a talk. What does the brain do? To tackle this question, Chudler juggles plastic brains while he leads the kids through a guessing game on muscle coordination, balance and sight. What is the brain made of? For this one, students become a giant neuron, linked to each other with rope, plastic and ping-pong balls. When Levitt teaches about friction, he asks students to pull a child in a wagon withand then withoutsandpaper beneath the wheels.
The same approach works with older crowds. High-school kids don't play with wagons, but they usually do like experimenting with the quick-freeze properties of liquid nitrogen, watching flowers crumble or pennies shatter after a dip in the stuff. "Skip the PowerPoint presentations," advises Mary Margaret Welch, a biology teacher at Mercer Island High School in Washington. "Bring something to do instead."
No matter what gizmos you may bring in your backpack, volunteers say, come to a classroom with the right attitude. "Kids can really sense whether or not you are into what you are doing, and they will immediately pick up on your vibes," says Harry Orf, director of Harvard University's molecular biology labs at Massachusetts General Hospital. "If you're tentative, they'll be tentative. If you're having fun, so will they."
Among younger crowds, in particular, enthusiasm is contagious. "All it takes for a young child to get interested in science is some sort of special moment," Varma says. "Kids want to be baseball players because we pay so much attention to them. They don't see a whole lot of excitement in science, but there's a real thrill in discovering something newand it's easy to share."
Even at the middle-school level, kids can often overcome their inhibitions and really enjoy learning about science from a stranger. "Middle-school students still tend to have lots of enthusiasm, and they're often willing to accept you just on face value," says Larry Ann Ott, a biology teacher at Northglenn High School in Denver. "Their emotions are close to the surface." High-school students, Ott says, require a different touch. "Older students have been through a lot more, and they tend to be more cynical or subdued," says Ott. "It takes more to capture their imagination."
One solution, Ott says, is to keep the science relevant. High-school students get swept up into social conflicts, with changing friendships, dating and plans for the future. "If you can bring any of thisgender differences, social interactionsinto your discussion, it can make a major difference in what they remember," Ott says. Catch their attention, and their curiosity will follow.
At meetings, scientists often listen to 50-minute lectures. At school, 50 minutes is an eternity. Kids move around a lot. If you want to keep their attention, get moving, too. "The more you move around, the more they have to keep watching you," Levitt says. "Whatever you do, don't stand at a lectern and rave on." A couple of years ago, Levitt was five minutes into his first talk to a grade-school class when he realized that nothing was sinking in. Kids were elbowing each other, looking around, playing with their sneakers. He quickly jumped up to change gearsand he hasn't stopped moving since.
If you're moving around, and the kids get a turn handling props, what's the teacher doing? Try including him or her, Moreno advises. Science looks easier if a familiar person can do it, too. "If we put a teacher up there in front of the kids, side by side with a researcher, we send a message that science is approachable," Moreno says. "That's an important message."
What's more, Schneider adds, the teacher can keep kids on task. "With the littler kids, in particular, I just don't have the skills to control them," he says ruefully. "I wouldn't want to go in cold, alone. It's important to have the teacher close by."
Spending an hour with a class can bring smiles all aroundbut following up can do even more. Teachers may build on your talk, doing lessons afterward to reinforce whatever you've taught. Chances are, they will also have questions along the way. "If you really want to make a difference, make a commitment," says Keith Verner, chief of the division of developmental pediatrics and learning at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. "Don't wait to hear back from the teacher. Instead, send an e-mail. Say, 'Hey, I enjoyed that. Have any questions come up that I could answer?' "
Many teachers would welcome the input. "A real partner is not just about having someone come in and give this presentation, but having someone who's willing to be on call," says Welch. "It's someone I can call if there's a kid who got really excited by something or had a question I couldn't answer. That's the kind of partnership we need."
That sort of partnership is not very hard to create, adds Harvey Lodish, a molecular biologist at the Whitehead Institute. "All research institutes can do something." Maybe a scientist can give one talk a year to third graders, or make a special presentation to high-school students. "We can't change the world, but we can change a little piece of it."
For more information about HHMI's Precollege Science Education Program,
Photos: (top) Pam Francis,
(center) Tom Keller
(bottom) Asia Kepka
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
September 2001, pages 18-21.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute