Special Report

The Scientist Comes to the Classroom

Partnerships that pair schools and working scientists are helping kids think about science—and science careers—in ways they never imagined

(Capital City Public Charter School)

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“Having a scientist in the classroom sparks an interest in science that really has never been uncovered before for some of these children. It is amazing how all of a sudden they have discovered that science is really fun,” says Tuschl.

As opposed to a one-time, Career Day-type visit, the fellows’ ongoing weekly visits give students the opportunity to build relationships with scientists. “Many of them have never met a scientist of any kind,” says Tuschl. “Without seeing a scientist, you don’t think of becoming a scientist. It provides an opportunity for them to recognize science as an attainable career for them.”

Nonprofits, museums and other organizations have also found ways of incorporating research scientists in the classroom. ReSET, for example, is a 25-year-old nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that recruits mostly retired botanists, biochemists, aerospace engineers, statisticians and other scientists. The volunteers make six one-hour visits to city public schools over the course of a semester and as a finale of sorts lead field trips to places such as the Goddard Space Center, the National Zoo or a local power plant.

In another model, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland, brings scientists into classrooms worldwide through videoconferencing. Mark Haddon, director of education at SERC, and Smithsonian scientists patch in for half-hour or hour-long interactive lessons from the field.

“The students have got to know where SERC is on the map. I usually use Google Earth to go from their school to the Chesapeake Bay, so they can see where I am in relation to them,” says Haddon. He takes on topics, such as blue crab biology, forest ecology, invasive species and global warming, that mesh with ongoing research by Smithsonian scientists. “As much as possible, I am outside. If I am talking about the Chesapeake Bay, I am on a dock. I have blue crabs in buckets beside me, and I pull them up,” he adds.

One of the strengths of SERC’s distance learning program is that it enables students to see scientists in action. “They are not wearing lab coats. They are wearing hip waders. They are getting dirty and wet, and they are looking at different animals. Or, they are up in the tree canopy,” says Haddon. “The benefit, I think, is to say, ‘Look, this is science. This is really interesting, and there are a lot of young people doing it.’”


For now, the success of programs that bring working scientists into elementary, middle and high school classrooms is largely measured on stories shared by those involved, rather than hard data. But, as Jeannie Tuschl notes, “Sometimes numbers just don’t show what truly happens between a teacher and a scientist and a scientist and the students.”

After the bell rang, signaling the end of Ting Wu’s class, I gathered a group of students to get their feedback. I asked them whether they thought it was a good idea for schools to invite scientists in to teach lessons, and I got a resounding “Yes.”

“If a certain scientist or researcher comes into class, it can totally change your perspective or your entire future, because you might all of a sudden feel like you want to go into something like genetics,” said one young woman.


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