Hello, gracious scientist! You are about to begin one of the most rewarding field experiences of your professional life: visiting with a small group (ranging from five to 35) of young humans in an educational context.
They did not choose to be here. In most cases, the law of the land has made their attendance compulsory. However, do not fear, your visit has been foretold, and they are eager for the novelty of meeting you.
When you enter the classroom, you may expect to see a few dozen smiling faces seated at desks, their hands folded neatly in front of them. The group's adult leader will turn his or her tired but battle-tested and hopeful face toward you. The leader will begin intoning the welcoming cry: "Now is your chance to ask your best questions about science of an expert! It is with great pleasure that we say 'Good morning, Dr. X!'"
With one voice, the young ones respond, "GOOD MORNING, DR. X!"
And away you go! Be careful of how much you blink…and be warned…they smell fear…In all seriousness, stepping in front of a classroom full of expectant—or distracted—faces for the first time can be a little unnerving. But with programs like Scientific American's new 1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days, such opportunities for mutual learning are hopefully going to become more commonplace.
If you have managed to make a contact within the school system and speak to an audience, anywhere from kindergarten to 12th grade, about your scientific career, you have already done U.S. students a great service! You have taught them the number one science ambassadorship tenet:
Science is for everyone and Science wants YOU!
(Think of yourself in a classic Uncle Sam pose, but with a beaker/telescope in your hand instead of the Evel Knievel get up, and perhaps, a bit more friendly looking.)
It is so important for school children to meet adults working in scientific fields, because that way students can put a personal face on a career field that may initially feel abstract and closed to them. (It gives them a chance to imagine their adult selves in that role.) So, thank you!
I currently prepare a group of volunteer science post-doctoral researchers and graduate students to teach weekly after-school sessions in the high-need middle schools of New York City. Here are three simple tips I always give them:
1. Walk in with confidence! You have worked hard and studied long to achieve your current position in your scientific discipline. Though "the children are the future" and they have the world in their hands, etc., etc., they will sense the weight of your experience when you walk in the room with confidence. Ah HA! You have the upper hand! (Plus the teacher is always in the room with you to help back you up.)
2. The children are VERY EXCITED to meet a real scientist! You will probably upend a lot of their expectations of what a scientist is, just by virtue of being a whole person and not a caricature. They will appreciate a very basic overview of your specific field and your methods—what you do and how you do it. If you can lay it out with pictures (even on the board, since you'll find many classrooms lacking in the AV department), all the better. They will appreciate hearing what happened in your young life that put you on this path, and the twists, turns and adventures that your science journey has taken. If your have a whole bunch of free posters or other educational material they were giving away at the last conference you attended, bring them along! After—or perhaps during—your talk, the students will probably have questions. Possibly lots of questions, which brings us to point three:
3. Don't be afraid of "I don't know." As I am sure you have already experienced, or perhaps rolled your eyes at when watching the news, scientists are often called upon as "experts" for a given field. Not of their specific areas of study, but their general, broad and sweeping "field." Students might have an even broader view of your area of expertise, or even that you, as a real scientist are able to answer any scientific question. They cannot help themselves, because they are boisterous and enthusiastic by nature. My best recommendation is to carry a pack of sticky notes. Answer any questions that you feel comfortable with, by all means. When you encounter a question to which you don't know the answer, you can simply state: "I don't know, but that is a good question" (if only dealing with peers and editors could be so easy). Give them a sticky note, have them write the question down so they won't forget, and encourage them to look it up when they get to a computer.
The "expert doesn't know" moment is actually a very important teachable moment in learning the true nature of science. Science is really a systematic asking of questions we are interested in but to which we don't yet know the answers. This is a great thing to point out: Don't fear the "I don't know," as many exciting careers have been forged therein.
The young scientists that I mentor have universally had rewarding and positive experiences working with youth, so check your fears at the door and feel free to dive in. I will leave you with only one caution: kids' enthusiasm is an infectious disease that you are likely to bring back from the field. Those I work with have, more often than not, returned to their own labs with a refreshed excitement for their own work. And that's a benefit for all.
For more tips on making the most of your school visit, sign up for 1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days.