Conducting a Tour of Your Worksite
Taking students and/or teachers on a good tour of your worksite can be a very effective
way to enhance science education. Such activities are highly motivational because they
enable the participants to see science being applied in the real world. (For nearly
everyone, applications provide the motivation for learning about principles, contrary to
our traditional inclination to teach principles first, with applications to
followmaybe.) In addition, participants gain exposure to activities and equipment
that could not be transported to their school, get to interact with engineers and
scientists of different ages, genders, and ethnicities, and learn first-hand about various
Nearly anyone can conduct an interesting tour which has substantial educational value
and is a rewarding experience for everyone involved -- provided a few basic principles are
followed. If these principles are ignored, however, a tour can be a boring experience in
which the student and teacher participants are discouraged from future interest in
science, and the engineers experience frustration rather than satisfaction. So read
carefully the guidance offered here, and be sure that your tour is designed and conducted
according to these simple, but very important, principles.
The two most important principles in conducting an effective tour are:
- Engage the participants in activities, rather than just showing them things and talking
- Deal with subjects and examples that the participants can understand and relate to,
rather than blowing them away with topics, examples, or technical jargon that few of them
relate to or understand.
Engaging Participants in
Almost everyone finds doing things more interesting than just seeing things, or worse
yet, simply hearing about things. The most common mistake that we professionals make in
conducting tours is to conduct them in a "show-and-tell" format. The reaction is
predictable; in the parlance of the kids, "it's booooring." Don't fall into this
Instead, design your tour to involve the participants in activities -- operating
equipment, conducting experiments, making measurements, solving problems, and the like.
Use these activities as simplified examples of the types of work that you and your
For example, in touring a scanning electron microscopy (SEM) lab, each participant
should have a (brief) chance to operate the instrument rather than just hearing about the
instrument and watching someone else operate it. This requires some planning and
preparation, and consideration of such questions as: How large a group can you
accommodate? Will each person operate the instrument individually or in groups where each
person has a particular job (sample mover, focuser, magnification changer, photo taker)?
How will the appropriate controls be identified and participants be discouraged from
inappropriate knob twiddling? What types of specimens should be examined? What will other
students be doing when not operating the microscope? Who will supervise the microscope and
other activities? And so on.
The best activities are ones in which participants solve a mystery, which can
frequently be posed as a detective problem, or engage in experimentation, measuring the
effects of changes in one variable on some other parameter. This helps them understand the
process of science, as well as engaging them in activities with interesting materials and
The most common reservations scientists and engineers express about conducting
activity-oriented tours are that the time used doing activities prevents the participants
from seeing as much of the worksite as they could in a more conventional
"show-and-tell", and that activities require more thought and preparation. Both
of these points are correct. But which is more important to you -- showing off your whole
facility in a way that is boring and will be quickly forgotten, or involving the
participants in an exciting and memorable experience, albeit less broad? Once you get past
the trauma of not showing off everything, you'll be free to select the few things that
lend themselves best to interesting activities. And while activity oriented tours do
require more thought and preparation, the payoff in participant enthusiasm and learning
make the effort well worth it -- just ask any of us who have quit doing show-and-tells.
If you have a good slide show or videotape that presents an overview of your facility
or shows exciting activities that would be impossible for participants to be involved in,
show it prior to or following your activity. But be sure that it's brief!
Being Age Appropriate
In order to be successful, activities must be understandable and interesting. The other
common mistake we professionals make in conducting tours is to deal with things that are
difficult to understand, because they are too complex or not sufficiently visual, because
examples are used that the participants cant relate to, or because confusing
technical jargon is used.
To avoid these pitfalls, first, avoid the temptation to focus your tour on particular
issues, phenomena, or equipment just because your professional contemporaries find them
interesting or impressive. You might have the greatest ion beam accelerator on earth, but
it's unlikely to excite a group of fifth graders because they can't see it do anything and
they don't even know what ions are.
Instead, select things that are highly visual and will excite kids of the age you are
working with. Sometimes the best things are those we overlook because of their simplicity
and our familiarity with them. The incidental equipment and supplies of our labs --
voltmeters, oscilloscopes, hardness testers, microscopes, liquid nitrogen, etc. -- can be
fascinating for kids when they are incorporated into a good activity.
Many times, activities with simple equipment can be used to help students understand
more complex processes. For example, since seventh graders are not familiar with
integrated circuits, they are not likely to have much appreciation for photolithography.
On the other hand, using cameras to reduce spy messages to fit under a postage stamp and
enlargers to subsequently print and read them provides an exciting vehicle for
illustrating the principles of photolithography in a way they can relate to. It also sets
you up to describe how photolithography enables the miniaturization of electronic
Second, in selecting examples, use ones that the participants understand and can relate
to. For a scanning electron microscope demonstration, "familiar" samples such as
fruit flies, light bulb filaments, Velcro, etc., are better than "foreign"
samples such as integrated circuits and fracture surfaces.
Finally, go over your explanations ahead of time and eliminate all nonessential or
inappropriate theory and complexity. Fifth graders don't need to know about secondary
electron and x-ray generation in order to look at fruit flies and gain an appreciation for
scanning electron microscopy. On the other hand, high school chemistry or physics students
should be able to appreciate these concepts in conjunction with activities involving
Similarly, you should carefully scrub your explanations of technical jargon and
acronyms. Call the CRT the video tube, the SEM the scanning electron microscope, and so
on. For younger children it is particularly important that you simplify your vocabulary --
in an SEM lab tour, refer to focusing as sharpening the picture, and to changing the
magnification as making the picture bigger or smaller. Again, forethought and planning is
required, but the dividends are well worth it.
In addition to these two most commonly violated principles, there are several other
issues worthy of your attention.
Teachers should be involved in every stage of the process. When included in planning
the tour teachers can contribute in a multitude of ways: by helping plan activities that
integrate effectively into areas the students are currently studying, by helping you
understand the level of the students' understanding and vocabulary, by introducing the
students ahead of time to the type of work you or your company does, and by providing
background that will better prepare the students for the activities they will be
After your plan is formulated it might be helpful to do a dry run of your tour with the
teacher. Let him or her know that you want the tour to be an outstanding experience, and
that constructive criticisms, rather than offending you, will be appreciated as a means of
helping you to reach that goal. Be sure that the teacher is also present during the tour,
and knows that you want him or her to point out to you ways in which you are missing the
mark ("The CRT -- is that the video tube?")
Finally, after the tour is over, get feedback from the teacher on what parts were most
effective and how other parts could be improved. By acting on the teacher's suggestions
you can continually improve your tour.
Make sure that you carefully plan the logistics ahead of time. Consider issues such as:
What safety equipment should be available? What areas should be closed off? How many adult
assistants will be required and what preparation do they need? What supplies will be
needed? What things can go wrong and what provisions should be made for these
eventualities? Its also a good idea to have name tags available so that you can call
everyone by name.
During the tour I take advantage of opportunities to relate how what the participants
are currently learning in their classes will pay off later and to encourage them to be
diligent in their studies. This can often be worked into a closing statement. For example:
"When I was in seventh grade and learning for the first time about atomic bonding I
couldnt understand why I had to learn that stuff. It didn't seem that I'd ever need
to know it. Now I use it everyday to figure out how to control the properties of
materials, just like weve been doing in our experiments today. That enables me to
have a really interesting job and also to earn a good salary -- a tough combination to
beat. If you work hard in school it will pay off in similar ways for you."
Try to provide some materials and/or follow-up activities that can be taken home or
back to the classroom as a remembrance or to reinforce and/or extend the primary
principles dealt with on the tour. You might, for instance, give the class a poster
showing different parts of the fruit fly that the students photographed using the scanning
Finally, have fun and be fun to be with. One of the stereotypes worth destroying is
that engineers and scientists are a dull and serious bunch who care only about inanimate
objects and rarely have any fun. Hopefully that's not you. Your attitude will likely be
contagious -- either way.