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The Moment of Truth - Adjusting to the Classroom

You are bound to be a little nervous during your first visits to a classroom, particularly if the student age group is outside your recent range of contacts - e.g. if you are a geoscientist in your late forties facing 32 eight-year olds! Those described above as successful communicators were also somewhat nervous in their early visits to classrooms. They prevailed by establishing clear goals and then deciding on what preparation was required to meet them. In brief, such goals should include helping the students to:

  • understand a little more about science and the excitement associated with it;
  • gain an understanding of the work that scientists do;
  • see scientists as real people; and
  • dispel some of the myths about scientists' lives and work.

    Preparation to meet these goals will require that you learn something about the students' vastly different attitudes and needs at various age and grade levels as shown in Table 1.

    Then you have to plan your presentation carefully. You can't "wing it" as you might to a group of peers or (to their misfortune!) a class of university students. No, you must tailor the manner of your presentation to the age and grade level, and carefully select and organize the resource materials and activities.

    Getting Your Message Across

    Your performance must be sparked by your own enthusiasm, it will be your greatest asset in getting the message across. And that message must be uncomplicated. Remember the KISS adage: "Keep It Simple, Scientist". You must also concentrate on class questioning and participation, e.g. give equal and full attention to girls' comments and questions (being aware that boys may act in a manner that attempts to demand your attention more aggressively than girls ... such as enthusiastically calling out comments). Be inclusive of students of varying cultures in the class, who may naturally interact in a less direct manner.

    It is difficult at present to provide a list of earth science topics that would be suitable at each of the various grade levels because curricula differ from province to province, and earth science topics may be introduced in quite different grades. Safest and soundest is a chat with the teacher before settling on a topic. However, the Canadian Geoscience Education Network is currently carrying out a study of earth science curricula across Canada. Its findings should be available late in 1995 and a letter to the Network (Appendix A) should bring some sound advice on desirable topics at various grade levels in your province.

    The actual content of your presentation will vary greatly with the topic, but there are some general requirements, such as an introduction, that will tie-in your material to some they have already covered. Also, major points and concepts should be few, jargon eliminated and a few humourous stories laced in with the messages. Illustrative and demonstration material, of course, should be of high quality. Almost all classrooms are equipped with overhead projectors, so consider using acetates to support or illustrate your major points. The more of the students' senses you involve, the more likely they are to learn! An effective closing might be an activity that summarizes or reviews all you have covered. You might even leave the children with a problem or a follow-up activity that will keep them thinking about your visit. If you don't get feedback from the teacher, ask for it.

    All procedures and activities in your presentation should be safe, environmentally sound and follow school guidelines. The teacher (your team-mate) should be in the class throughout the time that you are there and, to maintain discipline, students should be advised that they must follow normal classroom rules.

    If you decide that you would enjoy being a scientist-in-the-classroom, and you are fortunate enough to become part of a network, your fellow, more experienced volunteers will provide workshops that will amplify all the above. If you find yourself on your own, there are helpful references in Appendix A, and Appendix C of this report is designed especially to ground you in the basics of a classroom presentation.

    What If I Can't Hack It?

    An appearance before 32 elementary students isn't come easily, don't persist or you will do more harm than good. But don't give up, you can still be useful to teachers and students. For example, senior high school students can be treated more like adults and don't require the same degree of participation and ingenious presentation techniques that are required to capture the attention of the very young. Unfortunately, fairly rigid curricula and time constraints prevent high school science teachers from inviting many guest experts into their classes. However, there are many other opportunities.

    High schools are often looking (and if they aren't, you can prompt them!) for job shadowing opportunities for their brightest students. Ideally, this means that a student would visit your lab or that a student would visit your lab or office for a few scheduled hours per week to observe you at work and perhaps to participate in your project. Commonly, you would assign her/him a mini-project that could provide experience and, hopefully, contribute to your own current task. Godfrey Nowlan, a GSC paleontologist, involved two students in a digital imaging project which worked out so successfully that it had a significant impact on his Division's purchase of a new digital scanning electron microscope.

    Mentoring can take other forms too, from helping to guide an individual student to advising an entire school. One form that allows time flexibility is when you agree to field queries from one or more students by facsimile or mail. Opportunities to pose questions and to exchange ideas via Internet are also increasing rapidly across the country. You reply with answers, advice and references without meeting personally with the students. Possibly, at the end of the year, you may invite them to your workplace to show them how you earn your living as a scientist. Teachers are always looking for competent judges for science fairs. If you haven't taken part before, fairs are an eye-opener. There, you are amazed by bright and inventive students, at home in their element. A far cry from the problem-causing teens sensationalized in the media! Teachers are always coming up with new ideas to involve volunteer scientists. One of the latest is to invite you to the school to be interviewed by small groups of students about your job. Or, in a variation on this, kids are sent around to your workplace to interview you. This offers a great opportunity to dress in field clothes with a packsack full of equipment to provoke questions about map-making, mine-finding, or garbage dump-siting!

    Howard Donohoe of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources bases entire classroom visits on his pack full of field paraphernalia. He chooses a student and outfits her as a geologist complete with vest, compass, logbook, hammer, penknife, hand lens, map, etc. Then, he discusses the use of each item with the class. Simple, easy, instructive and good fun!

    We can't all be humourous, innovative extroverts who can turn on a class of 10 year olds, but there are many other ways in which we can serve. Pick one to suit you and you'll find it very satisfying. In this regard, a series of booklets published by SEPM (The Society for Sedimentary Geology) provide a multitude of hands-on earth science activities for children. References are in Appendix B - check them out at your library.

    From "The PAST is Key to the Future A Geoscientists' Guide to Public Awareness of Science and Technology" by E.R. Ward Neale and Louisa Horne. Permission to publish from Geological Association of Canada.


        Last Modified: 2004-12-10