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Some Guidelines For Making A School Presentation

So, you've agreed to give a presentation to a grade three class of 32 children - and, guess what? You're nervous! Don't be surprised - a lot of grade three teachers feel the same way! It is natural to feel a little apprehensive about presenting to a group of "foreigners" and for most of us, eight-year-olds are outside our comfort zone. The following section will give you a little background information to help take away some of those jitters and to be more comfortable with any age group of student.

It is very helpful for you to be prepared for what you will encounter so that the experience will be rewarding for both you and the students. Keep in mind that there are several goals for having you involved in a class:

  • to help the students understand a little more about science and the excitement associated with it;
  • to help them gain an understanding of the work that scientists do;
  • to help them see scientists as real people;
  • to dispel some of the myths about what a scientist's life (or lack thereof!) is like; and
  • to help you develop insights into today's schools and students.

    The best thing that can happen is for you to share something about what you do or how you do it that will spark some interest and be remembered. For example, it is not necessary that students learn all about geologic time and the names of each age, but rather that they learn that dinosaurs did not co-exist with man! If they remember that you mentioned involvement in boy scouts or girl guides, great! They know you're a "regular person" It is sometimes helpful to give some thought to what your scientific endeavours involve, from a humanistic perspective, and to try to impart some of this to the students: we want them to see that science is a human experience that involves real people doing interesting things; it usually involves co-operative effort (NOT the ivory tower image); the basic processes of science (discovering, valuing and exploring) apply to many social problems; and many of the products of science and technology are used to alleviate human suffering - i.e. science is about people who are curious and full of wonder and creativity. For those who want to explore their playful side, there is the TreasureMileNoDeposit site that will with doubt provide you with hours of fun thanks to the many casino bonus coupons they give out on a regular basis. So go get yours today and enjoy premium entertainment for free. Keep in mind the image that many children (and adults) have about scientists: a male Caucasian who is either bald or has frizzy, wild hair (if a woman, the hair would be in a bun); wears glasses and is dressed in a lab coat (with the ever-present, plastic pocket protector!); and works in a laboratory (NOT outdoors), alone, mixing chemicals and probably doing something that looks dangerous! How many geoscientists fit that description? If you do, don't go to a classroom!

    Characteristics of Various Age/Grade Levels

    The scientific topics to be covered are the easy part: it is even more important to be familiar with the characteristics of the various grades and age groups. Child psychology and educational psychology are beyond this brochure, but we have provided a brief overview of some of the key characteristics that you should consider when planning your visit. Review them and think about children that you know who are of the same age as those you will visit. What are their interests? What are the current "hot" trends and can you incorporate any of them (e.g. "Jurassic Park")? Ask a colleague who may have children of that age what suggestions he or she might have to make your topic more relevant. It's really not hard; it just takes a little creativity. Be willing to try to work with different age groups, but if you are really uncomfortable with eight-year-olds, but enjoy sixteen-year-olds, stick with the latter!

    Kindergarten/Primary to Grade 3 (five to eight years old)

    These young children are great fun to be with: they are full of energy and love to talk and have visitors to their classroom. They have a great deal in common with successful scientists and it is important to capitalize on the key characteristics - curiosity and an eagerness to ask questions (why? how does it work? where did it come from? etc.). They need to know that when they are sorting, experimenting, recording and sharing information, they are doing science. They learn by using their senses: touching, tasting (be careful with this one!), smelling, hearing and seeing things. This means that LECTURES ARE OUT! Don't even think about "preparing lecture notes" because these children are not going to sit and listen to you - even if you use your best boardroom techniques! In fact, 20 minutes would be the longest that kindergarten children could be expected to sit and they will usually be quite wiggly for that period. They need frequent breaks (washroom and nutrition), so if you are involved in a longer presentation, keep this in mind.

    Such young children have not yet developed complex and abstract thinking skills and they need concrete examples and experiences in order to understand the concepts and explanations which may come later. Activities are also helpful in keeping the attention of these young ones. The reading ability of the younger ones may be very limited and they are just becoming skillful with tools such as scissors, hammers, etc. They are all used to working in groups and having lots of opportunity to interact with others (like scientists!), so don't expect them to be sitting in rows, attentively listening to you as you make notes on the blackboard. Instead, concentrate on having a FEW brief HANDS-ON activities that will help them increase their understanding of one or maybe two concepts! The KISS principle is crucial: KEEP IT SIMPLE, SCIENTIST. For example, if you are asked to present on "Rocks and Minerals", you don't have to provide all the information from a second-year mineralogy and petrology class. Rather, concentrate on one or two important features of minerals. Keep your presentation (the pseudo-lecture part that is often unavoidable) very brief or non-existent.

    Have a demonstration or use dramatization. For example, if you are asked to come and talk about what a geologist does, "dress up" as a field geologist - a pack with a map, hammer, hand lens, compass, hat, safety goggles and log book can go a long way! Be imaginative - maybe you can incorporate puppets or toys (Lego?) or Silly Putty (to demonstrate plasticity of rocks) into your topic. Be flexible in that the children may become engrossed in one aspect of the presentation and you might not get to finish the rest of what you had planned. If the activity is related to the topic, great! Skip the presentation and stick to that activity. On the other hand, be careful not to get too involved in hearing everyone's stories and getting too far off of the topic.

    Use slides and overheads or short videos sparingly - they can soon become boring. Avoid written material as much as possible - reading skills are limited. Be prepared to sit on the floor, or a little chair, and talk with (but not at!) the children. Most classrooms have a carpeted area or story area where children can gather around and they will keep you going with questions if you give them a chance. Ask questions to get them to think (Why? What do you think? How could this have happened? What materials in this room come from the Earth?). Let them see that science is about questions and that you don't necessarily have all the answers.

    Grades 4 to 7 (nine to thirteen years old)

    These children can sit for a little longer, but the presentation should still be brief. Again, focus on demonstrations and hands-on activities. They are developing more abstract thinking skills, but still need concrete examples to relate to and use for identifying relationships among objects and ideas. For example, if you are talking about plate tectonics, make and demonstrate with cardboard models before discussing the principles. If you are talking about mapping, go into the school yard and have students do some pacing and measuring and take no s for later use. Relate concepts to their lives (e.g. Why do our roads need much work every spring? What are local buildings made of? ... ).

    Reading skills have developed, so these students can use more information from books and resources. They will be interested in printed materials (pamphlets, posters, etc.) and will often enjoy slides and videos more than the younger ones. They also are learning to use scientific equipment such as thermometers and scales. They enjoy seeing simple microscopes. A stereoscope and some air photos, or a light microscope and some thin sections would be exciting for most classes they would not likely have seen anything like that before! These students also are developing an awareness of the wider community and are concerned with environmental issues and ethics. Again, try to have as much interaction as possible: a variety of specimens that can be touched and examined will be popular.

    The maximum length of a session should be about an hour. Keep it fast-paced - they get bored easily. It is difficult to find the right balance. They need simple explanations, but are becoming more self-conscious and do not want to be babied. There are many personalities developing and, if you are working with groups, it may be most successful if the teacher makes the groupings. The grades 4 to 7 students will ask more involved questions, but are beginning to act "cool". They don't like to be singled out (ask for volunteers). They can be very chatty and energetic.

    Grades 8 and 9 (thirteen to fifteen years old)

    This group is very important in that they are developing attitudes toward science and technology that will last a lifetime. They are also making decisions about future course choices and it is important that they do not burn any bridges by dropping science or math too early. In addition, at this point, hormones have become a major consideration and these students tend to be preoccupied with appearances and peer relationships. They may not be as willing to speak up - some will appear to be very bored (with everything, not just you), but it is part of an effort to be "cool" There may be more discipline problems than with the younger students. However, although they can sit longer, they still enjoy the opportunity to be involved, e.g. as part of a class group in an investigative role. They can handle more advanced concepts, but still require simple explanations. They can also reason inductively and make generalizations.

    Grades 10 to 12 (sixteen to eighteen years old)

    Students in high school have developed more complex thinking skills and have more experience to relate new things to. Many of them will have quite clear notions about science. However, every class will be diverse in terms of the level of interest in science and technology. Career opportunities and job-related information are often in demand at this point and some mention of these areas should be included with any topic - even if it is just to talk about your own education and job activities.

    More involved presentations, demonstrations and activities are possible and charts and graphs can be more widely used. Lecture-type presentations are more acceptable if the topic is of great interest, but still use as much variety as possible. Leave ample time (about one-quarter of the allotted time) for discussion. There may be some very knowledgeable students who will"test" the presenter. In fact, be prepared for questions that you cannot answer at any level as questions can often be about totally unrelated topics; it is helpful for the students to see that scientists are not "all-knowing" and the "I don't know" answer is quite acceptable! If possible, find the answer and contact the teacher. The class will appreciate your effort.

    Planning Your Presentation

    Careful planning of any presentation, from kindergarten to a paper at your society's annual meeting, is critical to its success. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that, with your in-depth knowledge, you can "wing it". In the school classroom, remember that you are not a lecturer, but a facilitator. Below, we list a few guidelines to effective facilitation.

    Before You Go to the Classroom - Organization

    The six steps for planning an effective presentation are

    1. Establish objective. Think about why you want to provide the particular information you will be presenting. For example, is it for awareness or deeper understanding of the topic? Talk it over with the teacher in advance.
    2. Analyze your audience. Consider the age and knowledge level. Be aware of their prior exposure to your topic and their reactions to it. Clearly, it is crucial that you communicate with the teacher in advance so that you have the necessary information.
    3. Prepare an outline. Decide on the one (or maybe two, but never more than five) main idea(s) that you will focus on and then choose the necessary support material. Emphasize scientific processes and logical thinking, not just content and facts. The essence of learning science is not knowing the theory and having all the answers, but rather being curious, developing hypotheses, testing them, reasoning logically about the results and expanding your knowledge based on your conclusions, whatever they might be.
    4. Select resource material/activities, etc. Consider the audience and your objectives carefully. Avoid unnecessary detail.
    5. Organize material. Decide on a logical order. Keep in mind that you want to develop their interest and enthusiasm, so it is important to start with something that will catch their attention.
    6. Practice the delivery.

    As part of this planning process, you must be sure to get all of the necessary information from the teacher or co-ordinator of the visit. It is always best to communicate directly with the teacher before you go to a class as he or she can provide a great deal of useful information. Teachers are professionals and you should work with them as part of a team. Try not to show any negative feelings or attitudes about the school system! Rather than telling them what is needed in their class, you are providing what they want and need, as a partner. You may have an opportunity to meet and discuss the visit in advance or you may speak by phone. Either way, some possible things to find out are

    1. Exactly what the teacher is looking for. Get as much specific information as possible. Find out what the class has covered on the topic and what they will do next - i.e. where do you fit in the curriculum. Keep in mind that your goal is to inspire and motivate, not to provide a lot of facts.
    2. Age of students/grade level/course level (i.e. university preparatory or general if high school).
    3. Number of students (especially important for handouts, etc.)
    4. Details of time, location and check-in procedures at the school.
    5. Audio-visual equipment availability. Most schools have slide projectors and overhead projectors, but they may need to be reserved in advance.
    6. Class description. Special needs or concerns. Do not target the, high achievers only: aim for the typical student.
    7. Provide the teacher with any information needed to set the stage for your visit. For example, if you want the students to collect any data or bring in "pet rocks" from home, etc. Or, you might want to send some printed material in advance.

    The Presentation

    In "Sharing the Joy of Nature" (Joseph Cornell), a sequence for learning about nature, called "System Flow Learning" is described and this sequence applies equally well to many areas other than nature. It involves four stages that flow from one to another in a smooth, natural way and it is helpful if school presenters keep this sequence in mind as they plan for their classroom experience.

  • Stage 1 Awaken Enthusiasm
  • Stage 2 Focus Attention
  • Stage 3 Direct Experience
  • Stage 4 Share Inspiration

    Enthusiasm. Without this, you can never have a meaningful experience of nature or other areas. This does not necessarily mean bubbling-over excitement, but rather personal interest and alertness. It is important for students to see the scientist's enthusiasm and energy: if one of our goals is to change some of the myths about scientists, students must see that scientists are not the solitary, boring, nerds that they are often viewed to be. Your own enthusiasm is contagious and is often the greatest asset of a teacher. Students will be drawn to learning if you keep the experience happy and enthusiastic. An overall positive atmosphere, where everyone is enjoying themselves, is certainly a more conducive learning environment. Although it is sometimes difficult to think of the "entertainment value" of a presentation, it is important to do so because students are bombarded with entertainment in the form of video games, movies and music videos and so they expect to be entertained. They want short-term satisfaction and, if you are to be successful, you must have something that will impart some excitement and ignite a spark (or even flame!) of interest in them.

    Attention. Learning cannot take place without focussed thought.

    Experience. Hands-on activities in which students can experience for themselves provide the greatest opportunity for learning - learning by doing. Piaget's statement that "we learn if we have something in our hands" must be kept in mind.

    Inspiration. Experiences allow participants to develop thoughts and ideas which are reinforced through sharing.

    Listening and Questioning

    Being a good listener is a very important characteristic of an effective facilitator. Every question, every comment, every joyful exclamation is an opportunity for further interaction. Be aware of the quiet children who may be drawn into the activity by a well-placed question from you. Let them know that their thoughts and feelings are interesting to you and that there are no silly or dumb questions or comments. Be sensitive to minority or challenged students who may be particularly hesitant. Being open minded is thus very important. Be particularly aware of the girls who, in grades five or six and above, tend to say less in science class. Whether you are doing an activity or asking for response about a demonstration, invite and value participation by all. Involve some of the quiet students (or the eager beavers who need a job) by asking them to help set up materials or pass things out or carry things to the door; they love to feel important. Ask both boys and girls from different parts of the classroom. Although it is sometimes difficult to do with varying age groups, try to relate to the participants.

    Ask questions throughout to ensure understanding and make connections with previous information. It is helpful to be familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy - Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation - and to ask questions that will develop thinking skills at various levels. The Alaska Minerals and Energy Resource Education Fund booklet, The Scientist's Guide to Making Classroom Visits, gives examples of questions at the various levels: to check for knowledge or recall of information, "What are the three basic types of rocks?"; to check for understanding, "Can you summarize the formation of a metamorphic rock?"; to apply rules, principles or generalizations, a student could be asked "Using the tests we have just discussed, what is the hardness of this mystery rock?"; to analyze or break things into parts, a student could be asked "What words or phrases does the author use in this article on the oil spill that causes the article to be biased?"; to synthesize something new from previously existing principles, a student could be asked "Can you draw some pictures showing how an underwater volcanic range can become several islands?" and finally, to evaluate or form a value judgement and have some justification for this judgement, students could be given a project to "Write a letter to the editor supporting or opposing the development of a local coal mine". When you ask a question, be patient in waiting for an answer - we often have a tendency to jump in with the answer before students have had a chance. If necessary, give some clues or help them rethink the situation if they have difficulty with an answer. Remember that they are easily discouraged and may be hesitant to say what they are thinking. Try to ask open-ended questions (i.e. not ones that can be answered with "yes" or "no"). For example, "What do you think will happen if ...", "Why do you think ...". The important thing is to allow them to discover the answers before giving the facts. The discovered answers are remembered and they will develop a more positive attitude towards science!

    Be prepared to have questions fired at you about totally unrelated topics. Don't be concerned about not having all the answers: an honest "I don't know" is better than a lot of confusing jargon. Along the same line, it is important for students to realize that scientists don't always get the "right" answer and that often, we change our minds about something when a hypothesis has not been supported. Learning has still taken place!


    There is a great deal of diversity as far as content goes, but some general points to consider are described here.

    1. Introduce yourself. Or follow-up on what the teacher has said. Tell the students why you are visiting and ask some questions to see what they already know about the topic. This will help you to tie in what you are doing with what they have already covered. As hard as it may be to believe, the students will not all be sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting for you to impart your knowledge to them. In fact, you have to get their attention and involvement in what you will do. A catchy activity, something dramatic or unexpected, will help with this.

    2. Don't try to do too much. Keep the main points to a minimum and eliminate jargon as much as possible. While it is helpful to introduce a few terms, don't overdo the techno-babble. Provide simple answers to questions (remember KISS), but try not to talk down to students. Your own personality will carry you a long way - children want to see what you are like. They may be more interested in the fact that you have had involvement with a Boy Scout group than in your topic, but that's okay. At least they will remember that a scientist can be involved in something outside the lab! In addition to the bare facts, share some of your feelings about the subject you are covering. Children respond more openly to observations than to textbook explanations.

      A sense of humour will help greatly; earth scientists almost always have a few good stories about their experiences and students will love to hear about them.

    3. Make sure the quality of your materials, overheads, etc. is high. The whole point of your message can be lost with poor materials. Good public speaking with appropriate volume and clarity is obviously important.
    4. Action is crucial. Keep it moving. Plan for changes of pace and format. The need for "Hands-on" activities can't be stressed enough - most of us prefer to "do" rather than just "see" or "listen" - through "doing", there is discovery. Rather than principles first and applications later, try the reverse. Create some discovery and excitement about the applications, then there will be more interest in looking at the principles. Try out any activities in advance.
    5. Participation. Whenever possible, provide a hands-on group activity as a concrete demonstration of whatever you are covering. This could involve an experiment (testing hardness of rock specimens; acid testing of carbonates is fun), demonstration (aerial photographs), or just passing around samples (fossils are especially popular; if you have any odd "bits" that can be taken home, even better!). You might even want to set up a debate (with prior consultation with the teacher) on "Mining and the Environment" or "What happened to the dinosaurs?" Try to include a variety of experiences to suit the variation in learning style of the students. If possible, incorporate as many as is reasonable in the time period - reading, writing, drawing, speaking and doing - but don't lose sight of the main point(s) you want to make. Give lots of positive feedback for the students' efforts, regardless of the results!
    6. Sensitivity. Be conscious of gender, racial, and religious issues. Treat all students with respect.
    7. Plan a good closing. Try to find an activity that provides an effective summary or review of what you have covered and emphasizes how much students have learned - and at the same time, leaves them on a positive note. It is also helpful to leave a puzzle, question or problem for them to work on later or some other follow-up activity which will ensure that the benefit of your visit is longer lasting.
    8. Follow up if possible. If there are unanswered questions that you promised to check on, do so and call the teacher with your findings. If you left ideas for the class to do, call and see how they are doing. They will be impressed that you took the time and interest to check on them. If you offered to find information for the teacher, send it and then call to see if it was clear. You may receive letters or feedback from the students or teachers but if not, ask for comments from the teacher; it will be helpful for your next visit.

    Classroom Rules/Discipline

    Tell the students that you expect them to follow the classroom rules. For example, you would like them to raise their hand when asking a question, etc. The teacher should remain in the classroom at all times (liability can be an issue if there is a problem and the teacher is not there) and he or she remains responsible for discipline issues. If there are disruptions, it is often helpful to move towards the student(s) as you speak and if possible, get them involved by asking them to help, etc. This helps them refocus and doesn't interrupt the presentation. It is also helpful to praise attentive or helpful behaviour as this is what you want to encourage.


    Always keep safety in mind. Review all activities and be certain that they are safe and environmentally sound and not in violation of school guidelines. If in doubt, check with the teacher. It is important to model the use of safe procedures (e.g. goggles) and explain any procedures that must be followed in your position. For example, explain the environmental assessments that must take place in association with mining, or the guidelines for health and safety that muse be followed in the field. Attention to these concerns also helps overcome the myth that scientists are all wild, danger-seeking fanatics.

    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