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Taking the First Steps (Eckelmeyer, 1995)

Take Advantage of Existing Programs

The simplest way to begin is to find out about existing programs you could participate in. It’s usually easier to become active in an ongoing program than to start an independent effort from scratch, particularly if you have limited experience working with students or teachers.

Consider looking into existing national programs. Several sites that will help you locate programs are listed under "Ideas and Resources." Another good place to start is with professional societies for teachers and for scientists They often have programs that provide opportunities for training and networking, access to resources containing hundreds of ideas for proven activities in various topic areas, and supplies and equipment needed to do core programs. Indeed, local chapters may already have partnerships in place. The scope of the national programs varies widely from being highly interdisciplinary to very narrow. Programs may function continuously throughout the year or as once-a-year events. Be careful, however, not to impose a fixed program on a school before you’ve had a chance to discover and respond to what the school really needs.

Another way of finding out about programs is to contact your local university outreach coordinator. Colleges of education or science and engineering departments frequently sponsor science education enhancement programs. If you’re affiliated with a particular university department, don’t hesitate to consider a program in a different department or university. Most programs are happy to have volunteers regardless of affiliation. You may also be able to locate partners through your local school board, district science education coordinator, or local teachers' (or science teachers') organization.

Organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, museums of science or natural history, groups that are concerned with the interests of minorities that are underrepresented in science-related careers, and youth-serving organizations such as 4-H Clubs also often have programs. If you really want to be independent, you could contact the principal at a local school -- perhaps the one your own children attend — or contact the school superintendent's office and ask the staff to put you in touch with a disadvantaged school — someplace that’s less likely to have technical help in its own neighborhood.

Work with the School

Regardless of the type of program you choose, you need to contact the school(s) where you propose to conduct your activities and begin the planning process. It’s usually best to meet with the principal first. In this initial contact, you should explain your interest and share the ways you think you might be helpful. After securing approval for your initiative, have the principal discuss your proposed involvement with his or her faculty and identify one or more teachers who are excited about this prospect. Schedule a meeting to get to know the teachers and discuss various possibilities for your involvement. After school or evening typically works best for meetings like this; teachers usually have short lunch breaks and have lots of things on their minds then. At the meeting, ask them to tell you about their programs and ways they think you could help. Tell them about your interests and the types of activities you could do that you think would make a difference.

Out of this discussion, or perhaps a series of several such discussions and a visit to observe their classes, you should arrive at a tentative plan that everyone supports and a schedule for some starting activity or activities. Don't worry about developing the ultimate plan right away. Get started on something, even if it's small. Put an especially strong effort into your first contribution, and solicit lots of feedback about how you could improve and suggestions for continuing activities. This will help you learn more about being effective, plus you'll begin building the relationships that will be crucial to long-term success.

In many cases, you will need to work with your employer to make arrangements for your education activities, particularly if some of them will occur during your regular work hours. Contact your human resources organization to find out about your company's policies and existing education programs -- an increasing number of companies are becoming enthusiastic supporters of such initiatives. Some organizations will allow you to devote a certain number of hours per month to community service. Others will match the amount of personal time you spend with company time. Some others will allow you to work nonconventional hours to offset the time that you spend away from work. Talk with your immediate supervisor, get his or her reaction to your proposal, and see what time arrangements can be worked out. Your boss’s support will be important.

As your activities progress, keep your supervisor and company informed. Most organizations are eager to establish good community rapport, and there are few better ways to do this than by helping teachers and students.

Structure for Success

Before getting too far along, you will want to establish some understandings with the school to maximize your effectiveness and avoid misunderstandings. You and the school administration and teacher(s) should reach agreements in areas such as: the purpose and goals of your program, their expectations of you and your expectations of them, how much of your time they can anticipate, what range of activities you’re willing to participate in, how much advance notice you’ll need to be responsive, whether you will have a room to work in and a place to store things, whose responsibility it will be to provide things like supplies and safety equipment, and so on. Try to work out as many of these issues as possible.

In addition, each party's roles and responsibilities should be well understood. Your role might be to provide the teacher with information about applications of the science topics that he or she will be covering, or to do exciting demonstrations with students to stimulate their interest. Don't try to do too much — it's better to do a limited amount really well than a lot shoddily.

You should also establish a plan for assessing the effectiveness of your program. Your employer and other potential sources of funding will be a lot more inclined to support you if you have an assessment plan in place. In addition, the assessment results can help you increase your effectiveness down the road.

The assessment plan doesn't have to be complicated. Develop it based on your purpose and goals. For example, if your objective is to increase teachers’ use of hands-on science activities, ask teachers to keep track of the numbers of such activities that they use over the school year and compare how these numbers change from year to year. If your goal is to increase student interest in science, have students complete a questionnaire to assess their attitudes before and after one year of your program. In this case each question should probe some area of attitude, such as:

  • How do you like science?,
  • How good are you at science?,
  • How do you think science affects the world?"
  • "What kinds of people do you think scientists are?"
For each question, have several possible responses, ranging from most to least desirable — for example, I love it, I think it's pretty good, I think it's okay, I don't like it much, I hate it. For each question, have the students choose the answer that best describes their response. By comparing the percentages of students who give positive answers before and after one year of your program, you can determine the extent to which your efforts are having the desired impact.

Keep in mind that baseline data (from before your program) will frequently be required to help you assess your effectiveness. It’s important that you develop your assessment approach and administer questionnaires before your program actually gets started. This might seem like an annoyance, but once your activities have started, the opportunity to collect unbiased baseline data is frequently gone forever.

In doing assessments, it’s also good to get information that will help you understand how to improve. Assessment instruments administered following a year of your program should include questions such as:

  • What things did you like best?
  • What parts did you like least?
  • What could we do to improve?
In addition to the formal assessment process, you should also set up times with the teachers and/or principal for periodically reviewing your efforts and giving two-way feedback to one another on how things are going and what modifications might be helpful.

Safety is an important element of any science education effort. It’s your responsibility not only to be safe, but to model good safety attitudes and practices. Many school systems have lists of forbidden chemicals and other items considered hazardous. Find out about them and be sure that you don't violate any regulations. Don't assume that students or teachers understand hazards — explain them! Don't depend on students to follow safety instructions in the absence of adult supervision.

Above all, plan your activities carefully! Avoid activities where things could easily go wrong and someone could get hurt. Be sure that you have the necessary safety equipment on hand to protect people from any possible hazards or to deal with unexpected emergencies.

If something does go wrong, are you protected from legal liability? It's best to investigate this with your employer and the school. Most companies have insurance that will protect you, unless you've been very careless, provided your effort is officially sanctioned by your employer. We hope that it will never become as issue for you, of course, but it's best to be sure that you're covered.

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