Things You Need to Know Before Getting Involved
You Can Make a Difference
So you want to help improve science education? That's terrific! The need is
In recent years we have seen a decline in the number of U.S. students who are
interested and competent in technical subjects, an erosion of U.S. world leadership in
many technology based industries, and a decrease in the technical literacy of our
citizenry. All of this has occurred at an inopportune time when our society is becoming
increasingly dependent on advanced technology. The bipartisan goal (supported by both
Presidents Bush and Clinton) for U.S. students to become first in the world in science and
math by the year 2000 is aimed at reversing these trends, but will require a massive
effort to achieve.
Fortunately, such an effort is brewing in the science education reform movement.
Standards for science education are being formulated. Exciting hands-on inquiry based
curriculum and support materials are being developed. Teachers are discovering how to
serve as guides to learning, rather than as dispensers of information. The business and
professional communities are committing their time and resources. Opportunities abound for
concerned individuals to become productively involved.
As a technical professional you can contribute to the science education of today's
children, thereby helping ensure the strength of our society in future generations. It is
an exceptionally worthwhile cause. The work won't always be easy, but it can be rewarding
and fun. Sandia National Laboratories wants to help you in this effort. We are committed
to enabling technical professionals to help science come alive for K-12 students and
Across the nation grassroots efforts are springing up in which technical professionals
are helping enhance science education. People from diverse backgrounds are joining in the
cause -- scientists and engineers, doctors and nurses, university students and retirees.
Some of them are working with teachers -- helping them access or develop hands-on
experiments for use in their classrooms, arranging loans or donations of equipment and
resources from companies, and helping them understand science topics they have lacked the
confidence to teach. Others are doing science enrichment activities and demonstrations
with students to bring curriculum topics to life in exciting ways. Some are working with
school boards as advocates for the adoption of hands-on inquiry-based curricula. Others
are serving as tutors and mentors. Some are conducting tours of their worksites so
teachers and students can see ways in which science is being applied in the real world.
Others are helping to organize, conduct, and judge Science Fairs, Invention Conventions,
Science Olympiads, and other science-oriented events and contests. Still others are
working with out-of-school organizations, such as local science museums, 4-H Clubs, and
many other institutions that sponsor after-school or Saturday science activities.
Many of these individuals are enjoying the satisfaction of having a substantial impact
on science education, and their efforts are being lauded by local teachers and students.
Typical teacher comments to Sandia National Laboratories, where several hundred employees
are helping enrich science education throughout the Albuquerque public schools include:
- "My science program has expanded from reading and discussion to building, testing,
evaluating, and most of all, making science fun."
- "The students and teachers have greatly increased their interest, excitement, and
involvement in science."
- "I find that I am not as hesitant to bring science into the classroom and I am
learning right along with the students."
- "This has been the most valuable support program in my nine years as a
- "[Employee's name] has greatly enhanced our physical science program. His humor,
rapport with our students, and ability to demonstrate that science has practical value has
stimulated these seventh graders."
And from students:
- "That was the first presentation involving science that I listened to. I really
learned some science. Thanks."
- "I really liked the skateboard experiment. It helped me understand that
(F = Ma)."
- "Those experiments with liquid nitrogen were rad, man."
- "Please come again soon."
- "I'll probably convince my mom to let me go (to college)."
You can become involved in a variety of productive and satisfying ways. But don't jump
in unprepared! Your efforts will be more fruitful and enjoyable if you first familiarize
yourself with the following background information and capitalize on the lessons learned
Advantage of Available Help--Don't Try to Invent Everything Yourself
While a growing number of technical professionals are getting involved and encouraging
initiatives are underway in various schools and communities, many of these individuals and
initiatives are operating in isolation. As a result, little information is being shared
between them, a lot of inefficient "wheel reinvention" is occurring, and many
are operating on the steepest part of the learning curve. In addition, there are many
other individuals who would like to become involved, but aren't sure how to get started or
what to do.
Sandia National Laboratories wants to help improve communication between these
initiatives. We believe that by sharing of successes, failures, and lessons learned these
grassroots efforts can be greatly enhanced and far more individuals can be productively
involved. The material you are reading represents our first attempt at having technical
professionals share with one another the principles they have learned about how to conduct
effective science enrichment efforts.
This first chapter, "Science Education: What Technical Professionals Need to Know
In Preparation for Getting Involved" provides an introduction and background
information you should know before embarking on any kind of education initiative. It also
suggests a variety of ways in which you might get involved. After you have completed it,
the following chapters deal with specific types of involvement. Currently these include:
"Working Effectively With Students," "Working Effectively With
Teachers," "Conducting a Tour of Your Worksite." and "Sources of Ideas
for Hands-on K-12 Science & Math Activities." Additional topics may be added in
These articles have been produced by technical professionals who have been extensively
involved in education support. They are designed to provide the key information you need
to know to have effective and rewarding experiences. Take advantage of what these peers
have learned; it's better than re-learning these lessons through difficult experiences.
Your Effort With the Science Education Reform Movement
There is broad general agreement on what constitutes quality science education. The
current state of educational research in this area is discussed in the reports of numerous
organizations. A listing of some of these organizations and their key publications is
given at the end of this chapter. You should establish contacts with them, familiarize
yourself with their reports, and keep abreast of their continuing activities.
At the risk of oversimplification, the bottom line is that we must move from a system
which promotes science primarily as recall of factual information and rote computation to
one which emphasizes conceptual understanding and logical process skills. The traditional
methodology in which the teacher communicates information to the students should decrease
in favor of hands-on activities in which students conduct investigations, discover key
principles, and practice applying them in a variety of situations. This modified approach
to science education, which has been practiced by leading teachers for many years, is
variously termed "reformed", "constructivist",
"inquiry-based", "hands-on", or discovery-based" learning. The
contrasting views of traditional and reformed science education are summarized in the
|View of students
||Passive receivers of new knowledge
||Active participants in their construction of new
|View of teachers
||Dispensers of information
||Guides to and clarifiers of discovery
|View of knowledge
||A static group of facts, principles and
procedures which can be recalled
||A dynamic body of integrated knowledge which can
be applied in a variety of settings, including how to develop further knowledge
|View of significant material
||Science content: scientific principles, facts,
equations, applications, etc.
||Science content plus the process of science:
experimentation and logical thought
|View of who can/should learn science
||Primarily above average students destined to
become technical professionals
||All students: future citizens
|View of individual involvement in
||Something you do prior to your career
||A lifelong process
|View of assessment:
||Multiple choice pencil & paper tests
measuring mostly recall
||Varied assessments integrated into the learning
process which also measure student abilities to reason and apply knowledge correctly
A number of national groups have proposed and initiated constructivist programs for
K-12 science education. These include the American Association for the Advancement of
Science's Project 2061, and the National Science Teachers' Association's Scope, Sequence
and Coordination Project.
The recently adopted Goals 2000 Law provides a series of education goals which the
president, congress, and the nation's governors agree we should strive to reach by the
turn of the century. These include the goal that "U.S. students will first in the
world in science and mathematics achievement." The Federal Coordinating Council for
Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET) has fleshed these out into a prioritized
national strategy for science education improvement in their report, "Pathways to
Excellence." The National Research Council (NRC) has also been tasked to bring
together the scientific and educational communities to develop national standards for
basic curriculum content, teaching methods, and assessment of student learning. These will
complement the standards for mathematics education developed by the National Council of
Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989.
Other groups are developing and publishing hands-on curricula, some of which are
briefly described in the chapter, "Sources of Ideas for Hands-on Science & Math
Activities." The National Science Resources Center (NSRC) has published an extensive
guide to outstanding curriculum materials, supplementary resources, and sources of
information and resources for elementary school teachers (Science for Children), and is
currently engaged in evaluating materials for secondary school teachers. NSRC also
sponsors conferences to help facilitate community adoption of hands-on inquiry-based
Various groups are also providing guidance on the organizational aspects of forming
community partnerships to enhance science education. The National Association of Partners
In Education (NAPE) sponsors an annual conference on this topic (not specific to science
education). The Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education has also published
suggestions for organizing and nurturing local partnerships.
Common to virtually all of these efforts is the emphasis on developing a generation of
technologically literate citizens who are equipped with critical thinking and analysis
skills. U.S. science education in past decades has been directed primarily at producing a
modest fraction of highly skilled technical professionals. While we have succeeded in
this, the byproduct has been a citizenry which knows very little science and views
technology with great suspicion. The new approach is directed, as the title of AAAS's
document states, at "Science for All Americans." Research findings indicate that
this will be a superior approach for both the future career technologists and the general
Adopt a Positive Attitude
As with most endeavors, having a positive impact on science education will depend
largely on your ability to interact with, win the respect of, and influence people and
The worst mistake you can make is to approach teachers, students, or institutions with
an arrogant attitude which implies, "You folks have really made a mess of things. I
understand the real issues and am riding in on my white horse to show you how to do it
right." Even if you're correct (which you probably aren't), you will have stacked the
deck in a way that will doom your efforts to almost certain failure. And keep in mind that
some teachers and administrators will initially be suspicious of your motives, defensive
about their positions, and intimidated by your knowledge of science content, so any hint
of arrogance on your part will be greatly amplified in their minds.
Instead, commit yourself to working with the institutions and people in your
community. Win respect by showing respect. Treat teachers as professionals who know a lot
more about education and young people than you do (they almost surely do). Make it clear
that you want to partner with them in ways that will honor their leadership role. Take
your lead from the school. Find out about its science curriculum and determine together
where and how you might best fit in and contribute. Even if you think that there are
substantial flaws in the ways it is doing things, start by working with and supporting its
existing program. Commit yourself to working with teachers and/or students where they are.
Don't insist that they measure up to (or even concur with) your notions of the ideal.
Two things will result from this approach. First, assuming you do a good job, you will
gain their respect and confidence, thereby winning the right to be heard when in the
future you make suggestions for change. Second, you'll learn a bit about the realities of
the educational process, which will probably modify some of your thoughts and opinions,
thereby making you more knowledgeable when you offer future suggestions.
Should Know About Schools and Teachers
Before you get started there are a few basic principles and facts of life about schools
and teachers with which you should be familiar. The following observations might not be
universally true, but our experience indicates that they are broadly applicable.
Schools aren't autonomous. They have requirements imposed on them by various oversight
groups. Typically the state mandates certain competencies for students at each grade level
and in each subject area. Frequently the local school board imposes additional
requirements. The principal and teachers don't always agree with all of these, but they
cannot ignore them. At the end of the year they have to give an account for each student
in each subject area. Sometimes they become so narrowly focused on these that they end up
"teaching for the test." Their preoccupation with these competencies might make
them initially skeptical of your involvement, particularly if it will occupy some class
time, because they feel that they can't afford to spend time with things that are not
directly tied to the requirements. It is fruitless for you to fight against this. Instead,
find out what these competencies are, and tailor your activities to help meet them. This
will go a long way toward winning teacher support for your efforts.
In addition to these governing bodies, school employees often feel that hundreds of
parents and special interest groups also presume to be their bosses. They can be faced
with a wide range of competing demands, expectations, and objections from people and
groups who are each convinced that their own point of view is correct. Sometimes they feel
"damned if they do and damned if they don't." You will have a difficult time
building relationships if you become viewed as part of this problem. Don't be dogmatic!
Schools have very limited funding for purchasing supplies and equipment. But they know
a lot about how to stretch a buck and scrounge for things. One of their initial requests
will likely be for help in obtaining equipment and supplies. If your company is willing to
donate or lend new or used materials this can be a boon for the school. But don't settle
for making this your only involvement. We've found some of the most popular items to be
simple things such as paper and copier use, educational kits that teachers need to do
particular experiments or demonstrations, and small computers that are outdated for
scientific purposes. Generally, schools aren't interested in specialized equipment or
things that need extensive repair.
Experienced school principals and teachers are frequently idealistic by nature, but
tempered with reality through years of experience. Those who have maintained their
enthusiasm, flexibility, sense of purpose, and love for the students are to be honored and
emulated. They will usually be eager for your involvement and a pleasure to work with.
Some, however, will have been ground down over the years, and their enthusiasm,
flexibility, sense of purpose, and love for the students will have dimmed. They might be
more skeptical of your involvement at first, but can become enthusiastic supporters if,
through your commitment, ingenuity, and warmth, and useful assistance you help them
discover new ways to be effective and rekindle their former excitement. Others will be
very set in their ways and simply will not want your involvement. Don't let them get you
down, just treat them courteously and work with those who welcome your involvement.
Teachers are pulled in many different directions and are very busy. Try to make their
lives simpler, not more complex. Seek to enhance their efforts without imposing a lot of
extra demands on their already hectic schedules. Avoid becoming viewed as a time sink or
just another person competing for their attention. Be part of the solution, not part of
The same kinds of cliques, power struggles, and honest differences of opinion that you
find in most work settings also exist in school staffs. Try to get along with everyone and
avoid becoming identified with one group or point of view. Learn the "do's and
don'ts" at your school, and do your best to comply with the school's written and
Schools get numerous "offers of help," many of which either don't come to
fruition or turn out to be very short-lived. This might make them a bit skeptical of you
at first. Don't be discouraged. Once you've made good on your commitments and
demonstrated to them that you're in it with them for the long haul, they'll warm
Things You Should Know
Students come in all sizes, shapes, and levels of emotional and intellectual
development. A few of the generalities that you need to know, even if you're working
primarily with teachers, are outlined here.
Children younger than 10-12 years of age base their social values and find their
primary security in their family. As they approach puberty, they not only change
physically, but also socially and emotionally. Their peer group becomes increasingly
significant in their lives at the expense of family, and they begin to question values and
try on new behaviors (some of which seem pretty strange and others of which are genuinely
dangerous). This is a natural stage in their learning to interact with and function in
society and establish their own value systems (which frequently turn out to be pretty
similar to those of their parents). Nonetheless, it is a time of great emotional upheaval
for many children and parents alike. For some it settles down by age l5, for others it
goes on into their 20s. There's not much that can be done to avoid it -- it's just
something that young people and their parents have to live through, and educators and
youth workers have to accommodate. Don't overreact!
Changes in intellectual development also occur with age. Virtually all elementary
school children are concrete thinkers -- they think in relatively simple terms about what
they can see, touch, and detect with their other senses. As they mature, most children
make the transition to abstract thinking, where they can generalize, project into the
future, and deal with less tangible issues. Some people make this intellectual transition
around age l1-14, but for many it doesn't occur until they are 15-20. In working with
elementary school children, it's essential to be as concrete as possible. Even with high
schoolers, it's best to start out with concrete issues and examples and progress to
greater levels of abstraction depending on the demonstrated abilities of the students
For example, a concrete way to represent the effects of water on plant growth is to
have plants of varying heights and graduated cylinders filled to show how much water each
had received arranged together on a table in order of increasing height. One level of
abstraction would be to have pictures, rather than real plants and water. Progressively
higher levels of abstraction would be to have numerical data, a graph of the data, and an
equation representing the effect of water amount on plant growth. An excellent overview of
intellectual development is presented in "A Biological Basis for Thinking and
Learning", available in print or videotape from Lawrence Hall of Science.
Decline in interest in science and the development of negative attitudes toward it
typically occur between the third and eighth grades. These are the critical years for
inspiring interest, building basic skills, and avoiding premature burning of bridges. High
school is the time to begin focusing more on specific content and future career options.
Applications and hands-on activities are the keys to generating interest and promoting
learning! The traditional approach of teaching theory first and applications later is
fundamentally unmotivational. Applications that are interesting and relevant to the
students, as opposed to things that you and your professional peers find interesting,
provide the hook to stimulate interest in principles. If you or the teacher wants to
arouse students' interest, start with an exciting activity or demonstration.
In addition, programs in which the students are involved in doing hands-on
activities are far superior to those in which adults merely show them things or, worse
yet, just talk to them. And hands-on activities in which students discover things for
themselves are the highest quality learning experiences. Students forget most of the
things their teachers tell them. But when adults lead young people in experiences where
they wrestle with an interesting personal observation and then figure it out "by
themselves" -- those things are remembered forever. Seek to be more of a guide to
discovery than a conveyor of information and a provider of answers.
Students exhibit a variety of different learning styles. Some learn science well by
listening or reading (auditory and print-oriented learners). They typically do well in our
traditional education system. Others learn more effectively by seeing things work (visual
learners), by being physically involved in games or activities which simulate scientific
phenomena (kinesthetic learners), or by solving problems in groups (group interactive
learners). The best learning experiences are those that involve a variety of (ideally all)
learning modalities. Don't get caught in the trap of thinking that, just because you are a
print-oriented learner, anyone who really wants to can learn just by reading books.
Science process is at least as important as science content. Students need to be
immersed in examining information, developing hypotheses, proposing critical experiments,
making observations, collecting data, testing ideas, and developing logical conclusions.
These elements should be woven into every content area. If students fail to develop these
scientific "habits of the mind" they will become adults whose decisions and
positions will be easily swayed by slick advertising or emotional appeals.
An increasing number of children are carrying a lot of heavy personal baggage with
them. Things like family disputes and break-ups, substance abuse (by either themselves or
their family members), families with little commitment to the importance of education,
inadequate or improper food, clothing, or parental support, self-doubts, and the need to
impress peers (particularly in the middle school years) weigh heavily on far more
youngsters than you might like to believe. Sensitivity to such problems is a valuable
Options for Involvement
There are many ways in which you can contribute, so you'll have to start zeroing in on
the type of involvement that's right for you. In doing this you should consider your
personal background, skills, and interests, as well as the needs of your community. Some
of the key issues you'll need to address involve the people with whom you will primarily
interact and their needs. A few of the most significant factors you need to consider are:
District, Teacher, or Student Directed
Should you concentrate on serving as an advocate for systemic change at the school
board level, provide support to teachers or work directly with students? Working for
science education reform at the district level provides the greatest leverage. If you do
this, however, it is crucial that you be well aware of and connected to the national
reform effort, otherwise you could contribute to the problem rather than being part of the
solution (see the references at the end of this chapter). In addition, working "in
the trenches" with a particular school for a year or so frequently goes a long way
toward overcoming naiveté and winning the right to be heard at higher levels.
Working with teachers has some strong advantages. First, most of us are more familiar
with and adept at communicating with adults than with children and, hence, do not need to
know as much about teaching and learning processes to work with teachers. Second, since
each teacher interacts with many students, there is considerable leverage in working with
teachers. Third, once you help a teacher become more knowledgeable and comfortable in
teaching a science, those enhanced capabilities remain, even after you have gone.
On the other hand, working directly with students enables you to serve as a positive
role model. It is particularly important for students to become acquainted with
professional role models who are women, ethnic minorities, or disabled. It also provides
contacts out of which mentoring relationships can grow, positive images of science and
engineering can be fostered, and students can become aware of career opportunities.
Will you concentrate your efforts at the elementary, middle school, or high school
level? Elementary school is where initial concepts and attitudes are developed, so there
are great opportunities there. Our experience at Sandia National Laboratories suggests
that the upper elementary grades (3 to 5 or 6) are where most scientists and engineers can
have the greatest impact and experience the greatest satisfaction. Students begin learning
some specific science content, but perhaps the greatest needs are to encourage positive
attitudes toward science and develop science process skills, such as experimenting,
measuring, observing, and drawing conclusions from information. Many elementary teachers
know very little about science and are very eager for any help that is available.
Elementary students are curious, exuberant, cute, and relatively unjaded, hence they tend
to be easier to work with than their older brothers and sisters.
Middle schools deal with students during their transition from childhood to adulthood.
This is where the greatest number of students either catch the spark of excitement for
science or intellectually drop out, so there is the potential for great impact in working
with this age group. The primary challenge is to help them associate interesting and
relevant applications with science principles. The physical, emotional, and social
changes associated with these in-between years, however, make these students less
predictable than either elementary or high schoolers, so they have the reputation of being
the most challenging to work with (but for some of us, they're our favorites). Middle
school teachers vary widely in their training and knowledge of science content. Some have
trained as elementary teachers and have little formal science background, whereas others
have trained to be secondary teachers and have extensive knowledge in one or more science
High schools typically have science teachers who are well versed in the content they
are teaching, but are frequently eager for help in areas such as science applications and
new developments, as well as in loans of or assistance with specialized equipment and
experiments. High school students who have not burned their bridges in the area of science
frequently need help that is more oriented toward understanding content, applications, and
relationships between science topics and career and college choices. In lower
socioeconomic neighborhoods there are frequently highly motivated students whose families
are ill-prepared to help them with academic and career issues who can benefit enormously
from mentoring relationships.
Perhaps the natural inclination of most scientists and engineers is to work with high
achievers. There are opportunities for great payoffs here, for these students will be some
of the leaders and trailblazers of the next generation. In addition, they are typically
highly motivated, serious about learning, well-behaved, and expressive in their
appreciation of your efforts.
At the other extreme are the at-risk students -- those who for a variety of family,
peer group, socioeconomic, or other reasons are in danger of becoming adults who are
drains on our society rather than productive contributors. It is entirely possible that,
unless a major portion of this growing group is successfully motivated and enabled to
become productive citizens, our societal well-being will be in jeopardy. While the
challenges here are great, the needs are enormous, and those whom you help will remember
Finally, there is the great middle group -- those who, like most of us, are neither
gifted nor at-risk. Out of this group will logically come the bulk of tomorrow's work
force and voters, those who will be responsible for ensuring our well-being when we are
retired (what a scary thought!). Will they have the tools to work, live, and vote
intelligently in an increasingly complex technological world? You can help ensure that
Cutting across all of these groups, there are particularly outstanding opportunities
for engineers and scientists who are women and ethnic minorities to serve as role models
for youth, encouraging them to break through the barriers of stereotyping and to overcome
the historical underrepresentation of such groups in the technical community.
School-Based versus Out-of-School
When we think of education, school is typically the first thing that comes to mind.
There are, however, numerous other organizations that are becoming increasingly involved
in science education. Groups such as 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the like are
beginning to expand their traditional roles and placing more emphasis on science. In
addition, national organizations like Hands-On-Science and a host of similar local groups
that conduct science activities with children and parents are springing up.
The activities of some of these groups are often conducted after school or in the
evening, making them easier to schedule than during school hours. Typically, they have a
predetermined set of activities to conduct, so less imagination is required and less
flexibility is available. While these chapters have been prepared primarily to assist
engineers and scientists in working with schools, the same principles apply to working
with these other groups.
Taking the First Steps
OK, so you're willing -- but how do you get started? Begin by investigating existing
programs in which you might participate. It is frequently easier to become active in an
ongoing program than to start an independent effort from scratch, particularly if you have
limited experience in working with students or teachers.
One possibility is to look into existing national programs. The National Science
Resources Center (NSRC) sponsors conferences to help scientists and engineers learn to
serve as advocates for school district adoption of hands-on inquiry-based curricula. Their
publication, "Science for Children", also contains a listing of professional
societies and museums which sponsor K-12 education programs. The National Research
Council's RISE Program (Regional Initiatives in Science Education) promotes opportunities
for the involvement of technical professionals in science education. The Institute of
Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has published a brochure titled
"Directory of Volunteer Opportunities in Precollege Math and Science Education for
Engineers and Scientists," which gives brief descriptions of a large number of
national programs sponsored by professional societies and other groups. Some of these
national programs are excellent. Others, however, are fairly narrow in scope, for example
promoting only a single profession or discipline. Some have the disadvantage of only
sponsoring once-a-year events. Still others impose a fixed program on the schools, rather
than seeking to discover and respond to the school's needs.
Alternatively, you can investigate existing programs in your community through your
local partnership which oversees the educational outreach activities of professional
society chapters. If your area doesn't have such a group, how about organizing one? These
groups can serve to focus the efforts of various participants, provide opportunities for
training and networking, provide access to resources containing hundreds of ideas for
proven activities in various topic areas, provide the supplies and equipment needed to do
core programs, interface with the schools to insure that help is being equitably
distributed, and provide various kinds of support that facilitate everyone's efforts.
Contact the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education or the National
Association of Partners In Education (NAPE) for advice on how to organize such a group.
Other ways of finding out about programs in your community include contacting your
local school board, your school district's science education coordinator, the local
teachers' (or science teachers') organization, the Chamber of Commerce, universities (the
college of education as well as various science and engineering departments frequently
sponsor science education enhancement programs), museums of science or natural history,
groups that are concerned with the interests of underrepresented groups such as women and
ethnic minorities, and youth-serving organizations such as 4-H Clubs.
Or, if you really want to do your own thing, you could contact the principal at a local
school -- perhaps the one your own children attend. Or contact the school superintendent's
office and ask the staff to put you in touch with a disadvantaged school -- someplace that
is less likely to have technical help in its own neighborhood.
Regardless of the type of program you choose, you need to contact the school(s) where
you propose to conduct your activities and begin the planning process. It is usually best
to meet with the principal first. In this initial contact you should explain your interest
and share ways in which you think you might be helpful. After securing approval for your
initiative, have the principal discuss your proposed involvement with his or her faculty
and identify one or more teachers who are excited about this prospect. Schedule a meeting
to get to know them and discuss various possibilities for your involvement. After school
or evening typically works best, as teachers usually have short lunch breaks and have lots
of things on their minds then. At the meeting, have them tell you about their programs and
ways in which they think you could help. Tell them about your interests and the types of
activities through which you think you could make a contribution.
Out of this discussion, or perhaps a series of several such discussions and a visit to
observe their classes, you should arrive at a tentative plan that everyone supports and a
schedule for some starting activity or activities. Don't worry about developing the
ultimate plan right away. Get started on something, even if it's small. Put an especially
strong effort into your first contribution, and solicit lots of feedback regarding how you
could improve and suggestions for continuing activities. This will help you learn more
about being effective, plus you'll begin building the relationships that will be crucial
to long term success.
In many cases you will need to work with your employer to make arrangements for your
education activities, particularly if some of them will occur during your regular work
hours. Contact your human resources organization to find out about your company's policies
and existing education programs -- an increasing number of companies are becoming
enthusiastic supporters of such initiatives. Some organizations will allow you to devote a
certain number of hours per month to community service activities. Others will match the
amount of personal time you spend with company time. Some others will allow you to work
non-conventional hours to offset the time that you spend away from work. Talk with your
immediate supervisor, get his or her reaction to your proposal, and see what time
arrangements can be worked out -- your boss support will be important.
As your activities progress keep your supervisor and company informed. Most
organizations are eager to establish good community rapport, and there are few better ways
to do this than by helping teachers and students.
Structuring for Success
Before you get too far along, you will want to establish some understandings with the
school in order to maximize your effectiveness and avoid misunderstandings. You and the
school administration and teacher(s) should reach agreements in areas such as: the purpose
and goals of your program, their expectations of you and your expectations of them, how
much of your time can they anticipate, what range of activities you are willing to
participate in, how much advance notice you will need to be responsive, whether you will
have a room to work in and a place to store things, whose responsibility it will be to
provide things like supplies and safety equipment, and so on. Try to work out as many of
these issues as possible.
In addition, each party's roles and responsibilities should be well understood. Your
role might be to provide the teacher with information about applications of the science
topics that he or she will be covering, or to do exciting demonstrations with students to
stimulate their interest. Don't try to do too much -- it's better to do a limited amount really
well than a lot shoddily.
You should also establish a plan for assessing the effectiveness of your program. Your
employer and other potential sources of funding will be a lot more inclined to support you
if you have an assessment plan in place. In addition, the assessment results can help you
increase your effectiveness down the road.
The assessment plan doesn't have to be complicated. Develop it based on your purpose
and goals. For example, if your objective is to increase teacher use of hands-on science
activities, ask teachers to keep track of the numbers of such activities that they employ
over the school year and compare how these numbers change from year to year. If your goal
is to increase student interest in science, have students complete a questionnaire to
assess their attitudes before and after one year of your program. In this case each
question should probe some area of attitude, such as: "How do you like
science?", "How good are you at science?", "How do you think science
affects the world?", "What kinds of people do you think scientists are?",
etc. For each question have several possible responses ranging from most to least
desirable, for example: "I love it", "I think it's pretty good",
"I think it's okay", "I don't like it much", "I hate it."
For each question have the students choose the answer that best describes them. By
comparing the percentages of students who give positive answers before and after one year
of your program you can determine the extent to which your efforts are having the desired
Keep in mind that baseline data (prior to your program) will frequently be required in
order to help you assess your effectiveness. It is important that you develop your
assessment approach and administer questionnaires before your program actually gets
started. This might seem like an annoyance, but once your activities have started the
opportunity to collect unbiased baseline data is frequently gone forever.
In doing assessments it is also good to get information that will help you understand
how to improve. Assessment instruments administered following a year of your program
should include questions such as: "What things did you like best?", "What
parts did you like least?", "What could we do to improve?
In addition to the formal assessment process, you should also set up times with the
teachers and/or principal for periodically reviewing your efforts and giving two-way
feedback to one another on how things are going and what modifications might be helpful.
Safety is an important element of any science education effort. It is your
responsibility not only to be safe, but to model good safety attitudes and practices. Many
school systems have lists of forbidden chemicals and other items that are considered
hazardous. Find out about them and be sure that you don't violate any regulations. Don't
assume that students or teachers understand hazards -- explain them! Don't depend on
students to follow safety instructions in the absence of adult supervision. Above all,
plan your activities carefully! Avoid activities where things could easily go wrong and
someone could get hurt. Be sure that you have the necessary safety equipment on-hand to
protect people from any possible hazards or to deal with unexpected emergencies.
But if something does go wrong, are you protected from legal liability? It's best to
investigate this with your employer and the school. Most companies have insurance which
will protect you, unless you've been very careless, provided your effort is officially
sanctioned by your employer. Hopefully, it will never become as issue for you, but it's
best to be sure that you're covered.
Getting On With It
There's a lot more that could be said, but you are now aware of the key principles you
will need to at least get started. As your plans solidify, take advantage of the companion
chapters dealing with students, teachers, tours, etc.
Keep in mind that improving the education process is a marathon, not a sprint. Support
is a process. Don't expect to see instant changes. But if you make at least a one year
commitment to a particular effort and pursue it consistent with the principles presented
here and in the other chapters, you will almost surely see positive results from your
efforts and experience the satisfaction of having made an important difference.
Remember particularly the importance of building relationships with the school, doing
things in response to its needs, demonstrating a genuine interest in the teachers and
students, following through on your commitments, modeling the scientific process, and
Welcome to the growing cadre of engineers and scientists who are engaged in "the
toughest job we ever loved."
and Resources in Science Education Reform
National Science Resources Center (NSRC), Suite 880, Capital Gallery, 600 Maryland
Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20024, (202) 287-2063:
"Science for Children", 1988 (an extensive review of outstanding curriculum
materials, supplementary resources, and sources of information and assistance for
elementary school teachers);
Science Education in the Schools: A Working Conference for Scientists and Engineers
(prepares technical professional leaders to be advocates for science education reform in
Elementary Science Leadership Institute (prepares school district leadership groups to
plan and implement science education reform in their districts).
National Center for Improving Science Education (NCISE), 1920 L. Street, Suite 202,
Washington, DC 20036, (202) 467-0652:
"The Future of Science in Elementary Schools: Educating Prospective
"Getting Started in Science: A Blueprint for Elementary School Science
"Education for the Elementary Years: Frameworks for Curriculum and
"Developing and Supporting Teachers for Elementary School Science Education",
"Assessment in Elementary School Science Education", 1989;
"Building Scientific Literacy: A Blueprint for Science in the Middle Years",
"Education for the Middle Years: Frameworks for Curriculum and Instruction",
"Developing and Supporting Teachers for Science Education in the Middle
"Assessment in Science Education: The Middle Years", 1989;
"The High Stakes of High School Science", 1991.
National Research Council (NRC), 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20418:
"National Science Education Standards: An Enhanced Sampler" (series of
interim reports on development of national standards for science education content,
teaching methods, and assessment -- final report expected in 1995);
Project RISE (Regional Initiatives in Science Education) (promotes opportunities for
technical professionals to help improve science education).
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 1333 H Street, NW,
Washington, DC 20005, (202) 326-6620:
Project 2061 (a long-range program for reforming U.S. science education);
"Science for All Americans", 1990 (recommends what understandings and ways of
thinking are needed by all citizens in a technologic world -- also planning documents for
particular disciplines, e.g., science, math, technology, and periodic updates);
"Benchmarks for Science Literacy", 1994 (fleshes out broad goals from
"Science for All Americans" into statements of what students should understand
at various grade levels).
National Science Teachers' Association (NSTA), 1742 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington,
DC 20009, (202) 328-5800:
"Project on Scope, Sequence and Coordination: a New Synthesis for Improving
Science Education", 1992.
U.S. Department of Education (DoEd), 400 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20202,
"Goals 2000: An Invitation to Your Community", 1994;
"Issues of Curriculum Reform in Science, Mathematics and Higher Order Thinking
Across the Disciplines", 1994.
National Science Foundation (NSF), 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22230, (703)
Funds numerous major programs for state and local systemic reform of science education.
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), 1250 N. Pitt Street,
Alexandria, VA 22314, (703) 549-9110:
"In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Education", 1993;
"Inspiring Active Learning: A Handbook for Teachers", 1994.
Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET), c/o
National Aeronautic and Space Administration, 300 E Street, SW, Washington, DC 20546:
"Pathways to Excellence, A Federal Strategy for Science, Mathematics, Engineering,
and Technology Education", 1993.
The National Association of Partners In Education (NAPE), 209 Madison Street, Suite
401, Alexandria, VA 22314, (703) 836-4880.
"A Practical Guide to Creating and Managing a Business-Education
"A Practical Guide to Creating and Managing School-Community Partnerships".
Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, 5112 Berwyn Road, College
Park, MD 20740, (301) 220-0885:
"A Guide for Building an Alliance for Science, Mathematics and Technology
"A Guide for Planning a Volunteer Program for Science, Mathematics and Technology
Council for Educational Development and Research, 2000 L Street NW, Suite 601,
Washington, DC 20036, (202) 223-1593:
"EDTALK: What We Know About Science Teaching and Learning", 1993;
"EDTALK: What We Know About Math Teaching and Learning", 1991.
Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, (510) 642-1016:
"A Biological Basis for Thinking and Learning", 1990.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 1906 Association Drive, Reston, VA
22091, (703) 620-9840:
"Everybody Counts: A Report to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics
"Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics", 1989;
"Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics", 1989.
Mathematical Association of America (MAA), 1529 Eighteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC
20036, (202) 387-5200:
"A Call for Change: Recommendations for the Mathematical Preparation of Teachers
of Mathematics", 1991.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), 1818 L Street, NW, Suite
1202, Washington DC 20036-5104, (202) 785-0017:
"Directory of Volunteer Opportunities in Precollege Math and Science Education for
Engineers and Scientists".