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Since 1984, scientists at Ford Motor Company's Scientific Research Laboratories in Dearborn, Michigan have provided educational enrichment opportunities for high school students and teachers. The Ford High School Science and Technology Program was recently recognized by the Industrial Research Institute as one of 11 "winning" pre-college education programs nationwide. Its two main components are (1) a series of 6 to 10 Saturday morning sessions - on such topics as "Physics in the Auto Industry" - each of which consists of a lecture and related laboratory/plant tours, demonstrations and hands-on activities; and (2) four-week summer internships for selected high school juniors and seniors.
Last year, the program reached more than 600 different students and teachers from over 100 area high schools, provided 30 summer internships, and made use of approximately 150 employee volunteers. As a long-time contributor to this program, I have often reflected on what general lessons the Ford experience might provide to others involved in K-12 outreach.
1. Have well-defined goals that play to your strengths. There is certainly no shortage of needs in the area of K-12 science education. It is also clear that not every institution can address every need. The most effective use of limited resources is therefore to restrict your focus to something that you can conveniently, and perhaps uniquely, provide to satisfy a need in your community. The lack of such a focus often results in a dilution of effort and loss of effectiveness.
Our program at Ford suffered a bit in this respect after its initial growth. By refocusing on our strengths - diverse, multi-disciplinary volunteer base, state-of-the-art facilities, and demonstrable success in applying science and math to technological and environmental problems - we clarified our program objective to increase awareness of technical careers and the importance of science and math in industry. This, in turn, has improved the quality of our efforts through a more effective alignment and concentration of resources.
2. Strive for longevity and continuous improvement. All outreach activities ultimately have greater impact if they can be sustained and institutionalized. Of course, sustainability is particularly difficult in volunteer programs, where enthusiasms may wane, key volunteers burn out, etc. From the beginning, efforts were made to keep the Ford program fresh by continuously improving it based on participant feedback.
3. Remember that random acts of kindness are better than none at all. The more one learns about and gets involved in K-12 science education, the more insurmountable many of the problems appear to be. Many experts, especially those who are strong proponents of systemic reform, sometimes refer somewhat disparagingly to small-scale outreach activities like the Ford program as "random acts of kindness." The implication is that while such programs may help a few students and allow volunteers to feel good about themselves, they have a negligible overall impact. There is perhaps some truth to this. The Ford program tends to attract highly-motivated students who would undoubtedly succeed whether we were there or not. On the other hand, this argument provides too convenient an excuse for busy professionals not to get involved at all. I would prefer to see people "think globally and act locally" about K-12 education, as they do in other human endeavors, including scientific research. When faced with a challenging research problem, most scientists simply do what their talents and resources allow, content with the knowledge that seemingly minor contributions often lead through the collective enterprise of science to significant advances and unforeseen solutions. Shouldn't we view K-12 outreach the same way?
Kenneth C. Hass is a theoretical solid state physicist and a member of the Physics Department at Ford since 1987. This article originally appeared in the Fall 1996 newsletter of the APS Forum on Education.
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