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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5

Science Education Chapter 2


Working Effectively With Students

There's no doubt about it -- impacting students is the bottom line of any educational enrichment effort. Working with students is rewarding because you get to see the "light come on" in their eyes when through a hands-on experiment they discover how something works, or when based on preliminary observations they successfully predict the outcome of an experiment. In addition, interacting with students allows you to serve as a role model and promotes contacts out of which mentoring relationships can grow, positive images of science and engineering can be fostered, and students can become aware of technical career opportunities. Finally, doing science enrichment activities in the classroom enables you to demonstrate to students and teachers alike both the process and applications of science.

To work effectively with students, however, you have to know a bit about what makes them tick, how to relate to them, and how to plan and conduct activities that will be meaningful and memorable learning experiences. Too many technical professionals have the attitude, "I know a lot more about the subject than they do, so working with kids ought to be easy and not require much forethought or preparation." Wrong!!!

Certainly you know more about the subject matter. But the subject isn't all you need to know to conduct a successful in-class activity -- not by a long shot! To be effective you also have to understand things such as how your activity fits into the overall teaching plan, what the students already know, what types of additional information and experiences will be meaningful to them, how to conduct the activity so that it will be both interesting and memorable, and how to interact constructively with the students.

This chapter will help you understand some of these key principles. If you learn and practice them, you will greatly improve your chances for having productive and satisfying experiences. If you ignore them, the students will probably be bored and you will become discouraged. It takes time to learn and follow these principles, but the results are worth it.

Social, Emotional and Intellectual Development of Children

In working with students, it's helpful to understand a bit about their stages of social, emotional and intellectual development. Some of this is outlined in the overview chapter, but will be reviewed and expanded upon here.

Social and Emotional Development

Children younger than age 10-12 base their social values and find their security mainly in their families. Typically, young children from socially and emotionally healthy families are well-adjusted and relatively easy to work with -- nice, normal, happy, exuberant kids.

Unfortunately, more and more youngsters don't come from stable homes where positive social values are modeled and their needs for emotional security are met. Things like family disputes and break-ups, substance abuse (by either themselves or other family members), inadequate or improper food, clothing, or parental support, and families with little commitment to the importance of education are more common than most of us would like to believe. Such issues are responsible for a growing number of children of all ages who come to school with a wide range of serious personal problems and are ill prepared to learn. These kids frequently need special intervention to prevent them from growing into adults who pass on similar problems to the next generation. Special education classes are designed to help, but a caring adult volunteer willing to make a commitment to caring for and encouraging such a child can be crucial to his or her development.

As children approach and enter their teens, something remarkable happens -- puberty. They not only change physically, but also socially and emotionally. With physical maturation dawns the realization that they can't stay cuddled up in mom and dad's cocoon forever -- they're becoming adults, which means that they're going to have to make it in the world on their own. It's simultaneously exciting and terrifying, even to the healthiest and best adjusted kids. With this bag of mixed emotions they make their fledgling efforts toward independence. Their peer group becomes increasingly significant in their lives while the family becomes less so, and they begin to question values and try on new behaviors (often to see what reaction is evoked from their peers). Their time constants for change are remarkable short -- one minute they exhibit sophisticated adult behaviors and attitudes, and five minutes later they seem to have socially and emotionally reverted to third grade. It's a time of great emotional upheaval for many children and parents alike, not to mention others who have to interact with them, such as teachers.

Fortunately, this early adolescent period doesn't last forever. It's just a natural stage in their learning to function in society and establish their own values (which frequently end up being similar to those of their parents). While they're in the midst of the turmoil, however, these youngsters have an incredible need for caring adults who will simply like them, assure them that they’re going to turn out great (they are scared to death that they're ugly and/or stupid, and that they will turn out to be misfits), and help them develop the skills they'll need to succeed as adults.

By the time they reach 15 or 16, the turmoil is starting to slow down for many, but for some it goes on into their 20s. When they are juniors and seniors in high school most of them are socially and emotionally much more stable, and are well on their way to establishing themselves as adults. At this age, however, they have a great need for respected mature adults who model appropriate behaviors and attitudes, who challenge them intellectually and socially, and who will interact non-judgementally with them as they struggle with difficult issues or questions.

Intellectual Development

Changes in intellectual development also occur with age. Most elementary school children are concrete thinkers. They think in fairly simple terms about things they detect with their senses, i.e., things they can see, touch, hear, and smell. In the early grades they can only deal with and think about things which they can presently see and touch. In addition, they can conceptualize only one attribute or variable at a time. Consistent with this, they learn to classify things into major categories, ordering them by single attributes such as length, size, shape, color, texture, etc.

In later primary grades they can deal with and think about things which they saw or handled yesterday or last week but that are not available to see or touch today. In addition, they become able to conceptualize more than one variable. This enables them to classify things more complexly into major categories and various subcategories, e.g., by shape, and for items of similar shape, by size, color, or texture. Throughout the concrete thinking stage, however, their abilities to conceptualize are limited to real things -- either ones that are present right now or those that they have experienced previously. Things that they can't see or touch, such as atoms, voltage, and sound waves are very difficult for them to conceptualize, even though they may seem simple to us.

As they mature, most students make the transition to abstract thinking, where they can generalize, project into the future, and deal with less tangible issues. In mathematics, algebra represents an important transition from the concrete (numbers) to the abstract (symbols). Making the leap from specific problems and real numbers to generalized formulations involving x's and y's is a frustrating exercise for those who have not yet begun the transition from concrete to abstract thinking. Some people make this intellectual transition around age 11-14, but for many it takes much longer, and some remain concrete thinkers throughout life.

In working with elementary school children, it's essential to be as concrete as possible. Even with high schoolers (not to mention adults), it's best to start out with concrete activities and progress to greater levels of abstraction, depending on the demonstrated abilities of the students involved. For example, the most concrete way to represent the effects of water on plant growth is to display plants of varying heights and graduated cylinders showing how much water each plant received arranged together on a table in order of increasing plant height. One level of abstraction would be to show pictures rather than real plants. Progressively higher levels of abstraction would involve numerical data, a graph of the data, and an algebraic equation representing the effect of water amount on plant growth.

"A Biological Basis of Thinking," provides an excellent summary of the stages of cognitive development. It can be obtained in either videotape or print form from Lawrence Hall of Science.

Attitudes Toward Science

When they enter school children are usually fascinated by the world around them. They typically have great curiosity about and positive attitudes toward science. Starting in about the third grade and continuing through about the eighth grade, however, increasing numbers of students lose interest in, and develop negative attitudes toward science. Thus, third through eighth grade is a critical time for inspiring interest, building basic skills, and avoiding premature burning of bridges.

By the time they reach high school the student population has pretty much become bimodal with respect to attitudes about science. A substantial percentage of students have essentially lost interest in and tuned out of science and math. It is difficult to re-engage these students in the context of traditional academic classes. Perhaps the best bet is to attempt to rekindle their interests through the back door of technology. A good bit of applied science and math can be incorporated into industrial arts and other applied classes. Some uninterested students learn key science and math concepts very effectively when they are directly tied to solving specific hands-on problems.

On the other hand, some high schoolers have retained their interest in science and have developed the tools needed to continue expanding their understanding. For them, high school is the time to begin focusing more on specific content and applications of science with an eye toward career options.

Principles for Maximized Learning

In addition to understanding the basics of social, emotional, and intellectual development, you should also be familiar with the elements of effective learning experiences.

Learning vs. Memorization

Educators make an important distinction between learning and memorization. Learning involves assimilation of new knowledge in a way that it is understood and can be applied. Memorization, on the other hand, does not necessarily involve understanding and requires only that information be recalled, not applied.

Sometimes our society mistakes memorization for learning. Perhaps this is because recall is easier to test for and quantify. But successful recall of facts does not necessarily imply understanding or application ability. It is true that students who have learned about a topic will typically remember facts relating to it. But the remembrance of these facts is more a side-effect of learning having occurred than its essence. Facts that have simply been memorized, but which have not been integrated into a system of understanding and which cannot be appropriately applied really aren't very useful (except perhaps for passing tests). Interestingly, they usually aren't remembered for very long either. Clearly, the goal of education should be learning, not just memorization.

Regarding the learning of science, educators point out that each person has certain generalized mental schemes about how things in nature work. Typically these schemes have been constructed to be consistent with the natural events we have experienced and are familiar with. Young students have very simplistic schemes -- birds and winged insects fly, therefore wings enable flight. Ph.D. scientists have more complex schemes, but like the young child's they are constructed to be consistent with and explain observed behavior. No one's schemes, however, represent the ultimate and complete truth about nature -- at best each represents partial, but incomplete, understanding.

Educators believe that the first step in the learning process occurs when students encounter something they cannot explain in terms of their current schemes. This step is inherently student-centered. Teachers can provide interesting activities, materials, and direction to promote these encounters, but the experiences of the students are the key events. These "unexplainable" encounters might initially cause some frustration, but they also pave the way for the second step in the learning process. Here the students re-evaluate their schemes in an effort to modify and make them consistent with their experiences and observations. In this stage the teacher helps the students organize their observations, understand the shortcomings of their previous concepts, develop new schemes that correctly account for their recent experiences, and learn the language associated with the new concepts. In essence, the teacher guides the students in the discovery of new or expanded schemes. In the third step, the students apply the new concepts to a variety of problems. This reinforces the concepts, ensures real understanding, and provides practice in application.

If the student is inherently incapable of understanding the new concept, for example because it requires abstract thinking skills that have not yet been developed, frustration occurs. Placed in this situation, highly motivated students with strong desires to please parents and teachers will try to memorize enough to score well on tests, but lacking real understanding, will quickly forget what they have memorized. Other students will lose interest and give up, concluding that science is very hard and that they just can't learn it.

In addition to being consistent with the students' level of intellectual development, some of the common denominators of great learning experiences are: they are fun and exciting, they involve hands-on activities in which the students discover the underlying principles for themselves, they integrate applications that are relevant to the students into the learning of principles and theory, they appeal to students having a variety of learning styles, they encourage the student to integrate new knowledge with his or her existing body of knowledge and to practice applying it, and they are designed so that nearly all of the students experience success. Let's consider each of these briefly.

Fun and Excitement

If you want to get students' attention, you better do something that involves fun and excitement. Today's kids are accustomed to experiences that involve or portray nearly continuous action and virtually instant gratification -- just check out the popular video arcades, Saturday morning cartoons, movies, and rock videos. Many young people have become conditioned to expect life to provide nearly continuous fun and excitement. As a result, they are easily bored and inclined toward activities that provide short-term satisfaction, rather than those that require short-term discipline in order to realize long-term rewards. While most of us would agree that this is unfortunate, it is a fact of life which we need to recognize and deal with if we are going to work effectively with students. The fact is that if we want students to develop favorable impressions of science, we better incorporate fun and excitement in the learning process.

For example, in a middle and high school program on chemical bonding we examine the effects of temperature on the properties of rubber tubing. After demonstrating its normally flexible behavior we cool it in liquid nitrogen and then challenge students to bend it. At first they conclude that it is very strong, but when they exert sufficient force it shatters dramatically into thousands of tiny pieces, which fly all over the room (safety glasses are a must). This typically creates great interest, and soon students are selecting other things that they want to test and are hypothesizing about how various materials will behave at very low temperatures. This provides a great lead-in to a discussion of the molecular structure of polymers, and how materials scientists engineer materials with different properties by varying chemical bonding and atomic arrangements.

Please don't misunderstand -- this doesn't mean that there is no place for disciplines such as study, memorization, and drill. However, in order to get students interested and committed to these disciplines it is crucial that fun and exciting activities be included with each science topic. You can play a key role in the educational process by helping to provide such activities. While teachers are typically better equipped to do the actual instruction, your enthusiasm for science and its applications provides a great opportunity for you to generate the excitement needed to ignite or fan the flame of interest among their students.

Hands-On, Discovery-Based

One of the worst ways to generate excitement is by giving a lecture. Nearly all of us find doing things more interesting and exciting than seeing things or, worse yet, listening to things. Kids have shorter attention spans than adults, so they are much less tolerant of lecture formats than we are. Activities in which everyone becomes personally involved in thought-provoking ways provide a much more interesting format in which far more learning occurs. Hands-on activities designed to enable the students to discover explanations and underlying principles by themselves provide some of the greatest learning experiences.

Once after conducting the rubber-hose-in-liquid-nitrogen activity with several classes of seventh graders, a young lady from one of the classes called and asked if I could provide some liquid nitrogen for her science fair experiment on how rapidly different foods froze and thawed out. After agreeing and setting a time and place for the experiment, I encouraged her to invite a few of her friends (by reminding them that this promised to be a lot of fun).

When the big day arrived, the four of us tested apples, oranges, bananas, marshmallows and dinner rolls. After running one sample of each material and finding a wide range of cooling rates, I asked, "I wonder what made some things get cold quickly and others take a long time?" They talked among themselves about this. (The reason I wanted several of them there was because a single student might hesitate to speculate with me, thinking that I know the right answer and that she would be embarrassed if she guessed wrong.) When they got around to the idea that not all of the samples were the same size, I asked, "Is there a better way we could have done the experiment?" After discussing this a bit, they decided to repeat the experiment using samples of equal mass. (Fortunately, I had a balance in my car!)

This time they found that the three fruits all cooled at the same rate, while the marshmallow and dinner roll took much longer. When they recognized this grouping, I asked, "I wonder what it is that apples, oranges, and bananas have in common that's different from marshmallows and dinner rolls?" After discussing this for a while, they hit upon the idea that the three fruits contained a lot of water while the other two items were very dry. "When a scientist has an idea like that it's called a hypothesis," I commented. "Then she or he tries to think up an additional experiment to test their hypothesis -- to see if it is correct." After thinking for a while, the girls decided to put an equal mass of water in a vegetable bag, place this in the liquid nitrogen, and measure its cooling rate. The results confirmed their hypothesis.

During that hour and a half they discovered for themselves the concepts of controlling variables, grouping data, constructing hypotheses, and designing critical experiments to test hypotheses. And since they discovered them, they'll remember them. All I did was ask leading questions at appropriate times to guide their thought processes. If I had told them at the outset to make all of the samples the same size they would have done it, but by the next day they likely would have forgotten the concept and importance of controlling variables.

Leading kids just enough that they make the important discoveries for themselves is education at its best. Think back over your own experiences. If you're like me, you've forgotten most of things that people told you, but the things you discovered "for yourself" are indelibly etched on your memory.

Combine Science Process With Science Content

It's important for students to learn science content: electricity and magnetism, the water cycle, photosynthesis, etc. But it's even more important for them to develop scientific habits of the mind: critically examining claims, developing and conducting experiments to test ideas and hypotheses, making observations and measurements, sorting through and organizing information, reasoning logically to derive valid conclusions from their observations and data, etc. Many of the students will be able to become successful adults without knowing much about science content, but all of them will have to possess logical thinking skills to be rational shoppers, intelligent voters, and full participants in adult society. How will they develop these skills? By practicing them. And what better setting to practice them than in the context of science -- the discipline which is based on inquiry, critical examination, experimental inquiry, and rational conclusions developed from unbiased measurements.

Interestingly, educational research shows that both science content and science process are best learned in conjunction with one another. In other words, we best learn the things we reason through and "discover" for ourselves; we also best learn logical thinking skills in the process of applying them to concrete problems.

Consider the apples-and-marshmallows-in-liquid-nitrogen activity described above. It dealt with science content areas such as temperature, states of matter, phase changes, and thermal conductivity. In addition, it involved the students in science process: developing and refining experiments, making measurements, reasoning logically about the implications of the data, and debating and agreeing on rational conclusions. Teaching science in the context of inquiry-based activities promotes highly effective learning of both science content and science process.

Principles and Applications

For most people, experience with practical applications provides the incentive and motivation for learning about theory and principles. Once I had quenched steel and discovered its dramatic effects on hardness and strength I developed an interest in understanding why. I am convinced that if the theories of diffusional and martensitic phase transformations had been presented to me before I had this applications-oriented frame of reference, I would have found them both boring and confusing. Since I was familiar with their practical applications, however, I not only found these topics fascinating, but also was able to discipline myself to struggle through the difficult parts and master them.

Too often, however, our educational paradigm is to teach principles first, with applications to follow -- if time permits. Could this be the reason so many of our students are bored and uninterested in science -- because they see no relationship between the things they are learning in class and the real world in which they live? You bet! 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) can provide the hook to stimulate interest in principles.

One good applications-oriented math exercises asks each group of students to figure out how high the school (or something else) is using a cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper or paper towels. Each group "calibrates" its tube by standing back various distances from a meter scale on the wall and determines how the vertical field of view seen through the tube changes as a function of distance. The students then go outside and see how far they have to get back from the school to just get it in the field of view. From this information each group computes the height of the school. It can be a proportions problem, a graphing problem, or a trigonometry problem, depending on what is being covered in class. The beauty of the exercise is that it develops the subject matter in the context of an application that is real to the students, rather than just as a rote manipulation or abstraction.

Sharing how the material they are covering in their classes relates to interesting (and understandable) applications from your work can also stimulate interest. As professional scientists and engineers we are ideally positioned to provide the applications link that motivates students to want to understand scientific principles.

Learning Styles

Students exhibit a variety of different learning styles. Some learn well by listening or reading (auditory and print-oriented learners). They typically do well in our traditional education system, which is structured consistent with their natural style of learning. Others learn more effectively by seeing things work (visual learners), by being physically involved in games or activities that simulate scientific phenomena (kinesthetic learners), or by solving problems in groups (group interactive learners). The best learning experiences are those that involve a variety (ideally all) learning modalities. Remember -- just because you have a particular learning style doesn't mean that all students learn best in the same way.

A common component of a middle school study of solids, liquids and gases covers how the atoms or molecules are arranged and bonded in each of these states of matter. A conventional way of teaching this might be to have students read about it and to explain it to them orally (print-oriented and auditory learning experiences).

In a more complete and balanced educational program this could be supplemented by visual and kinesthetic experiences where the students see and handle ping-pong ball models -- balls glued together for the solid, unglued but contained in a vegetable bag for the liquid, unglued and uncontained for the gas. Another kinesthetic experience would have the students pretend that they are each atoms and to behave as if they were first a solid: everyone holds hands, then a liquid: everyone holds hands, but continually changes partners, in sort of a disorganized square dance, and then a gas: everyone lets go of one another and moves in straight lines around the room until they run into and bounce off of something or someone. A group interactive activity could involve teams of students trying to estimate how many bonds in a liquid are broken at any one time based on the heats of fusion and vaporization.

Integration and Application

Students need to not only absorb new information, but also to integrate it with their existing knowledge and experiences, and to practice applying it. Only after they have done these things is the new information likely to be retained and available for their use.

When I work with seventh grade physical science classes it's amazing how many opportunities I find to connect new material with activities we have done in the past. Activities early in the semester involve Newton's Law (force and acceleration) and buoyancy (floating and sinking in liquids and gases). Later in the semester when we are doing activities involving states of matter we cool balloons full of various gases in liquid nitrogen. With just a little leading the students are able to go back to Newton's Law and both predict and explain why the balloon shrinks when the temperature is lowered and the molecules slow down. Similarly, when given time to hypothesize whether a helium-filled balloon will rise or fall after being immersed in liquid nitrogen, they hearken back to the density activities and conclude that the balloon might fall -- until it warms up, whereupon it will expand and float.

These integration experiences are crucial not only to the learning of past and present material, but also provide practice for the application of knowledge in the real world where very few high-level tasks require simply the recall of the "correct" answer. And the excitement in their eyes when their predictions are confirmed by experiment is a priceless reward for us who dedicate our time to them.

Repetitive practice in applying new knowledge is also crucial to the learning process. All of us have had the experience of reading about something and thinking that we understand it -- and then realizing when we try to apply it how limited our understanding really is. Useful knowledge is developed in the process of applying it -- over and over again -- to a variety of problems. This practice aspect, however, is very time consuming, so it is usually not possible for us to incorporate this into our programs because we spend a limited amount of time with the students. By integrating our activities with the topics being covered by the teacher, however, the teacher is able to do follow-up activities and provide a more complete learning experience.

Success-Oriented

One of the greatest temptations of technical professional is to develop challenging activities that only the brightest students in the class can understand and relate to. This only reinforces the preconception of many of the youngsters that science is very hard and that they can't do it. Don't get caught in this trap. Your goal should be to help 95% of the kids believe that science is interesting and that they can do it!

Design your activities so that nearly everyone gets involved and experiences success. Experiments that are virtually impossible to mess up, such as making "slime" by mixing together polyvinyl alcohol and borax solutions, are great for young students. In some cases this will mean working in groups rather than individually. You and the teacher might want to meet with group leaders and the brighter students ahead of time to enlist their support as part of the team to ensure that each student gets to participate and develop understanding.

One of the most important things you can do is to help students redefine success in science -- as learning something rather than knowing the correct answer at the outset. When I am working with students I frequently ask them to make hypotheses about an experiment we are about to do. Some of them construct correct hypotheses, others incorrect. I then give them an opportunity to explain and discuss their hypotheses with one another. In this process some of the students frequently see flaws in their reasoning and switch camps. Then we do the experiment and discover which hypothesis was correct and discuss why.

Then I congratulate and make a big fuss over the students whose initial hypotheses were wrong! I tell them that they participated as real scientists, because that's what good scientists do -- they make a hypothesis based on their best current understanding, do an experiment to test their hypothesis, and change their minds when the results of the experiment indicate that their hypothesis was wrong. Then I share with them that many of my hypotheses at work turn out to be wrong, but that my employer continues to pay me, because out of the incorrect hypotheses comes increased understanding, which eventually leads to some correct hypotheses and the development of improved (in my case) engineering materials.

Coordinating With the Teacher -- The Foundation for Success

With the principles of social, emotional, and intellectual development under your belt, and an appreciation for the elements of successful learning experiences, you're now ready to start implementing some specific activities. But don't try to do it on your own, or you'll be overlooking, and possibly alienating, the person who could be your greatest supporter and guide: the students' teacher.

The teacher knows far more than you do about such things as cognitive development, the structure and goals of the curriculum, classroom management, and the abilities, limitations, and learning styles of the students. On the other hand, you might know more about science content and how science is applied in the real world. By working together as a team you can make each other's jobs more productive and interesting. If you and the teacher work independently, or worse yet in competition with one another, your efforts with students are not nearly as likely to be productive.

There are a number of up-front issues you need to discuss with the teacher before beginning to plan a meaningful activity. First and foremost, you need to assure the teacher that you want to assist and supplement his or her efforts, not criticize, belittle, or change what he or she is doing. If the teacher sees you as a threat you will start out with two strikes against you. Your preliminary discussions with the teacher(s) should also include topics such as integration of your activities into the curriculum, determination of your role and how your activities fit in to the overall teaching plan, and understanding what student background knowledge you can anticipate. Let's elaborate a bit on each of these.

Integration Into the Curriculum

It is important for you to plan your activities to fit into and strengthen the curriculum and overall teaching strategy. Activities that are unrelated to what the students are learning in their classes might provide interesting diversions, but those that introduce, reinforce, or illustrate applications of current curriculum topics have far more impact. Talk with the teacher and find out when in the semester topics related to your professional interests will be covered and when there might be opportunities for you to do enrichment activities with the students. Then present your activities when they coincide with coverage of the pertinent or related topics in class.

Determining Your Role in the Teaching Plan

In addition to coordinating your activities with the curriculum, you should also determine with the teacher what role in the teaching process your activity will play and what its goals will be. Very rarely will your activity comprise all of the instruction in a particular topic area.

Occasionally you will be introducing a new topic area. In these cases activities that serve as appetite whetters and curiosity arousers are very appropriate and relatively little time should be spent on in-depth explanations.

Many times your activities will be dealing with real world applications of the principles they have been studying in class. It is essential that these be applications the students can understand and relate to.

Concentrate on activities where you have something to offer that the teacher simply couldn't provide -- experience with real world applications, special supplies or equipment, and so on. Avoid activities in which the teacher could easily do everything that you will do. That's the teacher's job and he or she can almost surely do it better than you can.

Understand Student Background and Vocabulary

Two of the most common mistakes of technical professionals are making incorrect assumptions about students' level of knowledge and using vocabulary that students don't understand. For each activity have the teacher explain to you what background knowledge the students will have and what vocabulary terms have been used in class. Then review your tentative activity plans with the teacher to get a reality check on whether it is at an appropriate level for the students.

Some teachers might worry that they will offend you by offering criticisms of your plan. Try to overcome this by letting the teacher know that you really want the activity to be an outstanding experience for the students, and that constructive criticisms, rather than offending you, will be appreciated as a means of helping you reach that goal.

Go over your planned explanations carefully and get rid of as much technical jargon as possible. Be especially careful to avoid using acronyms. For younger children it is particularly important that you simplify your vocabulary -- since technical terms are second nature to us it takes a strong conscious effort to avoid using them in situations where they cause confusion. For technical terms that are essential, prepare to explain them clearly in terms that youngsters can understand. Be sure that the teacher will be present during the activity, and that he or she has your permission to interrupt and/or question you in order to clarify issues that the students are not understanding.

Planning and Preparing Successful Activities

After you've done this preliminary preparation with the teacher and identified a topic area, you're ready to begin fleshing out your plan. Begin by going back over the principles for maximized learning. Keeping in mind the level of intellectual development of the age group, think about potential activities that would be fun and exciting, involve hands-on discovery experiences, demonstrate practical applications that the students can understand and relate to, involve various learning styles, and provide nearly all of the students with a feeling of success and accomplishment.

Tap into the resources listed in "Sources of Ideas for Hands-on K-12 Science & Math Activities" to discover and investigate things that others have done on similar topics. Consider how you might use or adapt one or more of these for part of your program. Put each idea through the screens of age-appropriateness and learning principles, and distill your list down to a few of the best possibilities. The teacher might be very helpful in this process, particularly if you're relatively inexperienced. Then begin to develop an order in which several related activities could be strung together, consistent with the following principles.

Start With a Grabber to Generate Interest and Focus Attention

Don't assume that the students are going to start out sitting on the edges of their seats just dying for the pearls of wisdom that you're going to drop on them. Your first task is to win their attention. Activities or demonstrations that involve something dramatic or unexpected are terrific for this purpose. Be sure, however, that this introductory activity ties in with the topic at hand because, once you have their attention, you'll want to be able to make a logical transition to your next activity or segment.

When I do a program with middle schoolers on force and acceleration, I start by wrapping up a student volunteer skateboarder (I'll call him Juan) in many layers of bubblewrap packaging material, giving him a bike helmet, putting him onto a skateboard, and running him into the wall (carefully, of course). After that everyone is paying attention! Then I take the bubblewrap off and feint doing the "experiment" over. This leads into an interactive discussion of how the force applied to Juan's body and the suddenness of his change in speed vary with the number of layers of bubblewrap. Out of this the students develop an appreciation for the principle that force scales with the suddenness of change in speed. Only after this "intuitive" understanding has been developed do I present and begin discussions regarding applications of Newton's Law, F = ma.

Design In Clear Connections and Transitions Between Activities

Many of your programs will involve several activities. It is important that these be clearly connected, not only in your mind, but in the students' minds. Too often we abruptly finish one thing and move on to something else in a way that disrupts continuity, where just a few words of transition would build these activities into a much more coherent whole.

In the middle-school program on Newton's Law, I start with the skateboard activity to generate excitement and develop qualitative understanding. Then I move on to a more quantitative activity where we interactively estimate the forces applied to humans in accident scenarios that are part of the students' "real world," such as a skier running into a tree or an outfielder running into the wall. After that I progress to a description of how engineers did very similar calculations to determine what damage would occur to a transportation system during a severe accident. I then show a five minute videotape of destructive testing of a few transportation systems (most middle schoolers are "into" destruction). Finally, I explain that we used the few destructive tests to verify our calculations. Once we knew that our calculations were correct we were able to do most of the "testing" by computer rather than having to perform a large number of very expensive "real" crashes. Logical sequencing and good transitions between activities help make the entire program a clear package rather than a series of disconnected activities.

Build from Simple to Complex, Concrete to Abstract

Start with simple, concrete examples and activities that virtually everyone will readily understand. As students experience these initial successes they will gain the confidence and knowledge that will enable them to tackle progressively more complex and abstract challenges.

Don't, however, try to pack too much into a single session. It's much better to do a little bit well than to attempt to do so much that you end up confusing most of the class. Initially you should look to the teacher for guidance in this area. As you gain more experience you'll start to get the hang of how complex and abstract you can get before you start to lose people, as well as how long various kinds of activities are likely to take.

Not all of your activities should be highly structured. Some of the greatest learning experiences occur during times of purposeful messing around because they provide terrific opportunities for student discovery experiences to occur.

Plan a Strong Closing

It’s good to close with something that enables the kids to prove to themselves that they've learned something. A puzzle, problem, or experiment that they will be able to solve or correctly predict the outcome of works great as a closer. When they get it right, heap on the praise. This will strongly reinforce their learning experience and also pave the way for a positive next visit.

Finish with a positive statement about how much they've learned and encouragement regarding how efforts that they make now will pay dividends in the future, rather than a bland statement like, "That's all I have for today."

In a middle-school program that relates atomic bonding to the properties of engineering materials, I close by having the students hypothesize and explain in terms of molecular structure what will happen if we stretch a rubber band, place it in liquid nitrogen, and then remove it and put it on the overhead projector. Initially, most of them reason that the rubber band stretches by carbon-carbon bond rotation resulting in molecular chain straightening (which we've discussed previously), but that when it is then cooled the carbon-carbon bonds will no longer be able to rotate, so the rubber band will remain stretched when released. Then someone says, "But not forever," and explains that as the material heats up bond rotation will again be possible, so the chains will re-curl and the rubber band will eventually return to its unstretched shape. Pretty soon the whole class agrees, so then we do the experiment. When it happens exactly as they had predicted, I take advantage of the opportunity to complement them on how much they've learned, tell them about the great careers available for chemists and materials scientists, encourage them to continue to take their studies seriously, and tell them how much I'm looking forward to our activities together next month.

The closing also provides an excellent opportunity to encourage them to tell someone who wasn't in the class about what they did and learned. This gives them opportunities to be "the experts", and also makes them think back through the activities and principles, thus fixing them in their minds.

It is also a good time to give each student something from your program to keep, particularly something can be used to tell their friends or parents about what they did and learned. Just make sure that it's not something that someone could get hurt with.

Know Where You Will Cut If Time Runs Short

The best-laid programs of mice and men often take longer than expected. You might be able to run a bit overtime in an elementary school where the students don't change classes, but in a middle or high school, when the bell rings you're history.

Plan how much time you expect each segment of your program to take, and keep track of how you are doing relative to your time projection. Know what you can either condense or eliminate if you are running behind schedule. It's almost always better to cut something than to try to squeeze everything into a shorter time, but be careful not to cut an activity in which knowledge or skills that will be needed for a subsequent portion are developed. At all cost, keep time available for your closing activity and comments -- these are too important to eliminate.

Plan for and Model Safety

Go over all your activities and be certain that they're safe, environmentally sound, and don't violate any school guidelines. Make sure that you have the appropriate safety equipment available. Remember, your job is not only to be safe, but also to model good safety awareness and environmental consciousness.

One way I do this is in conjunction with repeatedly emphasizing the theme that scientists and engineers don't primarily memorize facts, but rather do experiments. Each time I do this, I reinforce, usually in the form of a question, that before good scientists do an experiment they think about ways in which it could harm people, property, or the environment, and either take appropriate precautions to avoid such damage or cancel the experiment. The students then participate in projecting the potential dangers in the experiments that we are considering doing together and help determine what precautions need to be taken (or what experiments suggested by classmates are too dangerous to be done).

Reinforcing this theme in repeated visits provides a good learning experience and also helps overcome the myth that scientists are a bunch of wild-eyed fanatics who do dangerous things and are oblivious to environmental concerns.

Don't Overlook Logistics

What supplies and equipment will be available at the school and what will you have to bring? What must you do to reserve school equipment? How many students will you be working with, what size groups will they be in, and how many sets of supplies or equipment will you need? Are there enough electrical outlets available? How much time will you have to set up, clean up between groups, and pack up at the end? Will you provide name tags for the kids? (Calling them by name goes a long way toward building the relationships in which learning thrives.)

Think about these types of issues ahead of time and make the appropriate preparations. Remember that youngsters are easily distracted. Once you get rolling you don't want to disturb the continuity of your activity to hunt down something that you forgot -- the attention of the students will likely be lost and you might have a difficult time refocusing them.

Presenting Your Activity

Well, the fateful day finally arrives -- you get to go to the school and present your program. If you've done your homework you'll be well prepared with activities that should be both interesting and educational. But there's one more thing you need to know about: how to interact effectively with the students.

Working with students has a strong relational component. If they view you favorably, your chances of having a positive impact are substantially enhanced. You don't have to act like a kid to be liked by kids; in fact, many young people recognize such behavior as phony, and there's nothing worse you can do with kids than come across as phony. Their view of you will be strongly influenced by your attitudes toward them. Here are a few tips.

Be Excited and Fun to Be With

If you're not excited about the activities that you're doing with them, it's unlikely that they will be either. But your excitement can spread to others. Don't be overly serious. Enjoy yourself! Smile and laugh some. It's contagious.

Demonstrate That You Like Them

One of the best ways to do this is to call them by name. They'll really be impressed if you do this outside of class when they're not wearing name tags.

Take an interest in them. Talk with them in the halls and at lunch time. Don't know what to talk about? That's great -- you shouldn't be doing most of the talking, you should be listening. Ask them about their interests. Once you find out what interests them, continue asking questions that encourage them to share more about these areas. Don't ask questions that can be answered "yes" or "no," but open-ended questions, such as, "How did you get interested in ....? "What have been some of your favorite experiences,?" and "What things have required a lot of work or practice, but then have paid off?" Notice that there is a progression to these questions. They start out impersonal and non-threatening, and gradually enable the student to share more deeply of his or her experiences and feelings. Your part is mostly to listen and express interest. When they conclude that you're interested in them, they'll start to like you and pay attention to what you have to say.

Give Lots of Positive Feedback

Set the students up to be successful, and when they succeed, praise them. Even mistakes can be dealt with creatively. When someone volunteers something that's incorrect, don't tell them that they're wrong; instead ask them why they think they're right. Frequently, in the process of explaining their logic to you or to the class they'll discover their own mistake -- then you can praise them for their discovery. Or if they think their logic is correct, you can present your logic and have the class discuss and compare these two perspectives. If the class can't come to an agreement, try to develop and do an experiment to find out whose position is correct.

Then point out that this is how science really works: rather than scientists knowing all the right answers, they make hypotheses and do experiments to test them. The best scientists aren't those whose hypotheses are always right, but those who are willing to change their minds when the experiments disprove their hypotheses. Remember that developing these types of critical thinking and reasoning skills is at least as important as learning facts about particular science topics.

Don't Try to Impress Them

If you try to blow the kids away with how much you know, you will succeed. However, you will also convince most of them that they could never understand or do science.

If you try to impress them with the elegance of theory, they'll go to sleep. The only people who appreciate theory are those who understand its applications.

And never, ever try to impress them with your coolness by putting down one of their classmates. The target of your "humor" will hate you forever. Feel free to poke fun at yourself, but never at one of them.

They will be most impressed with you if you simply demonstrate that you like them and help them to learn something.

Treat Them With Respect and Expect Them to Behave Responsibly

If they start getting a bit rowdy explain your expectations to them and let them know that your continued interactions with them will depend on their behavior. Most kids will respond well to this. If not, deal with the problem students privately if possible, not in front of their peers. Criticize their inappropriate behavior, don't attack the people. For the most part, you should have an agreement with the teacher that he or she is responsible for dealing with classroom management issues. In general, I have found that most young people respond well to someone they know cares about them and places high expectations on them for responsible behavior.

Following Up

Now you've completed your first activity. Don't stop here or you will have lost at least two great opportunities.

First, offer and provide follow up assistance to the teacher and/or students. Provide them with opportunities to read more about interesting applications of your topic, places they can visit to see applications happening (perhaps where you work; see "Conducting a Tour of Your Worksite"), or science fair projects they could do in this area. Encourage them to write follow-up letters to you sharing their comments and any questions they later think of. Then be sure to write back, taking the opportunity to reinforce a few main principles.

Second, have the teacher review your program, pointing out things that went well and things that could be improved. This will help you understand how to do an even better job next time.

Speaking of next time, don't forget to find out what topics they'll be covering in the next month or two, and make an offer for a return engagement. As you and the students get to know one another, your times with them will become increasingly productive. You will grow in your understanding of how to interact effectively with them, and they will become increasingly eager for your visits.

The middle school physical science teacher with whom I work uses my upcoming visits as a carrot. She tells the students, "When you demonstrate sufficient mastery of a topic, Dr. E will come for a day of related activities." She tells me that it works like a charm. And from the reactions of the kids when I show up, I believe it.

Best of all, I get to see their growing understanding of and excitement about science. Here's hoping you will too.


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