Returning to High School for a Few More Lessons

Kristy M. Longsdorf

With the alarm buzzing in my ear I roll over to find that the time is 7:30am. My first thought – “Oh no, I am going to be late for school!” So why is a graduate student rushing to get to high school on time? Is it some bad dream of memories past? This morning as I bustle about getting ready to leave, I am not donning on the lab coat today for research, but making a 20 minute commute to a local high school for participation in an outreach program. The NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Program provides fellowships and training for graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The GK-12 program seeks to unite graduate students in the sciences with science teachers and their classrooms from grades K-12 in local school districts for the duration of an academic school year. The goal is to enhance primarily the graduate students’ communication skills of science to a general audience and secondarily the educational content of the classes.

In the university setting surrounded by other graduate students and professors who are immersed in the culture of science and academia, we are often content to ramble on in our own jargon, filled with acronyms and sayings. When we communicate with the outside world, we are sometimes unaware that other audiences may not quite be grasping the concepts we are attempting to simplify. As a teaching assistant at the University of Delaware, I had some experience at adjusting my level of terminology for the undergraduate chemistry laboratories I led. However, now I would be working with high school students who have quite a different level of thinking and interest in science compared to undergraduates aiming for a degree in the sciences.

As a GK-12 participant, the chance to return to a high school to see the flip side (the teaching side that is) of what a general science class was responsible for knowing and how that material was transmitted gave me a different perspective on science in a classroom. It was humbling to realize how difficult it was to relate “simple” concepts that I have learned for the last ten years of my secondary education to students. For the first time. I quickly learned that even when I thought the most general and non-scientific explanation possible was being used, it was still speaking above my audience. By working at being able to explain science at a 9th grade level to students, I was able to improve my communication skills in a way that graduate school never would have prepared me for.

The realization of how important relating students’ lives to science concepts was another outcome of the GK-12 experience. There is always talk of how many of the products we use daily involve science, but those words themselves do not bring significant meaning to the student’s mind regarding scientific concepts. However, taking the time to ask how science might influence a student’s life allows them to see that it is more than just a CSI case solved in an untouchable and far away laboratory. It can be an exercise as basic as choosing a product they use and making a chart of how energy was transferred by different people and objects just to use that one product. Or it can be a more in-depth homework assignment, where students actually sit down with their parents and determine energy usage and what they would do if their energy consumption needed to be limited. Would they perhaps consider alternative energy sources or would other changes in their lifestyle be made? By bringing science to the student’s level of reality and how it affects their lives captures their attention and encourages them to be invested in the subject.

Students aren’t the only benefactors of science outreach programs. While the GK-12 participants were educated on how to best present to students in a classroom, the teachers benefited from the graduate students presence as not only an extra set of hands, but by way of another set of ideas. Being a graduate student in a laboratory setting day in and day out, I was able to give suggestions for improvements on laboratory experiments. Also, I was able to offer my partner teachers more detail or background information to clarify a science principle being taught. The teachers I worked with were also thankful to have an outside voice, an “expert” in a given field, who could bring a different point of view to the classroom. This change of who is up in front of the class and talking about a topic is enough to change the interest level of some students. For example, after giving a PowerPoint presentation on the properties of water, I asked the class if there were any questions on the lecture. One student who had previously shown little interest in prior lectures said in a puzzled tone, “That was a lecture? But it was interesting….”

While participation in the GK-12 program was initially introduced to me as an option for an alternative method of funding, it has become so much more. This outreach experience has inspired me to continue to be involved even after graduate school. As a speaker I am more confident in being able to relate science concepts and ideas to a broader audience. I truly value the daily efforts that teachers make to keep science interesting and relevant to their students despite the amount of material required to be covered in a given semester. As an instructor I have seen first hand the personal links that need to be formed to encourage students that they can understand and use science too. As a professional in chemistry I realize that scientists should be partnering with teachers to enhance the education of tomorrow. It is the responsibility of all scientists to teach in some capacity. Science is our career, our love, our passion; shouldn’t we be taking at least some time to share that with the community?

Kristy M. Longsdorf participated with the GK-12 program from 2007-2009 through the University of Delaware and New Castle County Vocational Technical School District. She received her B.S. in chemistry at Pennsylvania State University in 2001 where she was involved with the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WISET) program as well as participated in and organized outreach events as a member of both the Nittany Chemical Society (NCS) and the Nu Chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma (AXΣ) with schools in the State College area. Ms. Longsdorf is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of Delaware.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.