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When I was an undergraduate physics student, my adviser asked me to talk about my research to a room full of grade-school children at a suburban magnet school. When I walked into the gymnasium, the first person I saw was my adviser's seven-year-old daughter. For most of the students, though, I was the first real scientist they had ever seen.
Luckily, my planetary science experiment was one that could be made interesting to non-scientists. A mock-up of our equipment helped me explain to the kids about how comets and planets form. I was a welcome break in the day of a busy first grader, with strange toys and distinctly non-grown-up hair. As I left, the teachers were gracious and the kids were excited by my lesson and demonstration.
“So this is outreach,” I thought to myself as I drove back to campus. I had just communicated actual science to actual children in an actual public school, albeit an elite one.
After I entered graduate school at the University of Arkansas, I became a fellow of the NSF GK-12 Program. For those unfamiliar, GK-12 is an NSF sponsored program that brings graduate students from STEM fields into school classrooms from kindergarten to 12th grade. GK-12 programs at different universities operate in a variety of ways. In my case, graduate students were paired with individual teachers in 6th grade classrooms. We spent a month during the summer learning about middle-level pedagogy, inquiry-based teaching and local subject matter guidelines in science and math. We also met extensively with the teachers we would work with for the next 9 months. I would spend the next academic year developing and teaching lessons with my partner teacher.
I’m not sure if any amount of training can prepare a person for 6th graders. Their energy is mind-boggling. Little from my year as a university teaching-assistant transferred to this new environment. Classroom management in a room full of sophomore engineering students is effortless compared to a room full of 6th graders. I quickly learned to create lessons that would direct their energy rather than try to contain it. My respect and understanding of my partner teacher's skills changed dramatically. Where before I may have been able to connect a lesson to a dozen different topics or examples, turning that understanding into a meaningful, salient experience on a shoestring budget was something I knew nothing about.
One of my first realizations was that to a 6th grader, nothing is real until you can put it in the next kid’s hair. A textbook illustration of a crystal structure is good, but having students make models themselves is far better.
With this in mind, I built matching games to connect animals and their biomes, grew mustard plants to demonstrate stages of plant growth, graphed data on the school’s sidewalks, built simple speakers, and flipped M&Ms to simulate radioactive decay. My goal was not only to allow students to learn with their hands, but to engage them to ask more frequent and more meaningful questions.
A second realization took longer to sink in: I was the only scientist most of these students had ever met. This led me to say two important things over and over. The first is that I describe scientists as we scientists. My goal in saying this wasn’t to impress anyone (6th graders are hard to impress); my students needed to see that real scientists are real people who have the same thoughts and questions they do. More importantly, the second thing I could say was that "if you want to know the answer to a question you do the following." The importance of this response is that it is actually an invitation. The implication is that there is an answer to each question, a straightforward way to find it, and most importantly, students are capable of finding it themselves.
A lesson that sticks with me is how rarely teachers are treated like the well-trained professionals they are. GK-12 was both my most formal and extensive training in pedagogy, and as a person who aspires to enter the academy I’m extremely grateful for that experience. Working with motivated, experienced and thoughtful teachers made a lasting impact on the way I teach and what I think about educators. I was able to experiment building lessons while supervised by a master teacher, could take great risks, fail and learn why. I look forward to utilizing these professionals in my own outreach efforts in identifying and solving local educational difficulties.
The first class of 6th graders I taught are now beginning to think about their own college plans. Clearly, very few of them will become scientists, but they will need to understand how science works and how scientific information is created. Spending an hour with a scientist does little to communicate such an understanding. Spending a few days each week for an entire academic year may still not be enough. My outreach experience in GK-12 showed me that connecting with a scientist through sustained, focused outreach can at least help a young person appreciate science and what we scientists have to offer our communities.
Justin Mitchell is a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas Department of Physics. His research is in theoretical molecular spectroscopy. He plans to graduate in the spring of 2010.