"I have an idea," my brother said to me last winter. Jacob is an elementary science teacher at a neighborhood charter school in Northeast Philadelphia and, at the time, I was working as a lab technician in the same city. "How would you like to come into my classroom and talk to my students about what it's like to be a scientist?"
I squealed on the spot. But as I got down to planning out the lesson with my brother, I began to doubt myself. I wanted to take my 45 minutes and inspire all the students to embrace science -- but how? How could I be concrete enough to teach them something real, as necessitated by the public school standards, while also abstracting enough to open the door to wonder? I wanted them to know that they could get out of their crummy neighborhood and be scientists themselves, that it wasn't just for crazy-haired white dudes. I wanted them to wake up the next morning and ask a question about their world that they wouldn't have asked before.
It turns out that all my fretting was for naught. Because my showing up, period, has more of an impact that anything I could say.
That's the message that I took away from last week's Science Online NYC panel. Science Online NYC (known as #SONYC on twitter and pronounced like the blue Sega character) is a monthly panel on a different aspect of science and science communication (facebook group). On Wednesday, the topic was reaching niche underrepresented groups with science -- but, in practice, it was about education.
After the two-hour discussion, one fact alone stood out to me, told to the audience by Bernice Rumala of Rockefeller University. She said that it only takes a single classroom visit -- one day of students interacting with a scientist or visiting a lab -- to change their mindsets, making science less scary and more attainable. And the question quickly became: how do we get more scientists into the classroom?
There are some initiatives set up to connect teachers to scientists. Scientific American has its very own 1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days program, which they announced in May. SONYC organizer Lou Woodley tweeted a GoogleDoc collecting links to similar programs or websites, including the US's National Lab Network.
But I don't think these go far enough. These programs, while a good start, place the burden upon the teacher to either suggest a project or reach out to the scientists themselves. But imagine being a teacher and getting an email from a scientist offering to help, no effort involved. That would speed up the process, and make it far more likely to actually happen. Despite time away from the lab, I imagine that many scientists would be more than willing to take a day off to hang out with fun kids and talk about themselves. In fact, it should be a requirement.
Maybe talking to a class of kids seems scary. But there is nothing easier. When I spoke to Jacob's classes, all I did was tell them about what I did. I presented the basic landscape of what I researched, asked the students for any questions about the topic, and we talked about how you could go about answering them. I showed them pictures from field sites and they oohed and ahhed over my flask collection. And, in the process, we covered some serious ground: talked about the scientific method, why we use model organisms, experimental design, and -- of course -- did a general science Q&A.
When I left the SONYC panel on Wednesday night, that day came back full force. The fun of teaching, hanging out with the students during lunch, illustrating the questions we wanted answered about the world. And that fun was only compounded by learning that showing up actually can change the lives of these students.
So as soon as the school year starts, I'm going to look up the schools in my neighborhood and email the teachers, principles, and counselors to force myself upon them. Because it's far easier to accept help than to reach out for it.
And, all you scientists, I recommend you do the same. Arrange a phone call with local science teachers and try to get in there! That single day is more meaningful to the students than it is to you.