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Working Effectively with Students (Eckelmeyer, 1995)

You’re now aware of the key principles needed to begin. As your plans solidify, take advantage of the material in this section to plan your activity. Keep in mind that improving the education process is a marathon, not a sprint. Support is a process. Don't expect to see instant changes. But if you make at least a one-year commitment to a particular effort and pursue it in ways that are consistent with the principles presented here and in the other chapters, you will almost surely see positive results from your efforts and experience the satisfaction of having made an important difference.

Remember the importance of building relationships with the school, doing things in response to its needs, demonstrating a genuine interest in the teachers and students, following through on your commitments, modeling the scientific process, and being safe.

Welcome to the growing cadre of engineers and scientists who are engaged in "the toughest job we ever loved."

Development of Children

Having a positive impact on students is the bottom line of any educational enrichment effort. Working with students is rewarding because you get to see the "light come on" in their eyes when they discover how something works or successfully predict the outcome of an experiment. In addition, interacting with students allows you to serve as a role model and promotes contacts out of which mentoring relationships can grow, positive images of science and engineering can be fostered, and students can become aware of technical career opportunities. Finally, doing science enrichment activities in the classroom enables you to demonstrate to students and teachers alike both the process and applications of science.

To work effectively with students, however, you have to know a bit about what makes them tick, how to relate to them, and how to plan and conduct activities that will be meaningful and memorable learning experiences. Too many technical professionals have the attitude, "I know a lot more about the subject than they do, so working with kids ought to be easy and not require much forethought or preparation." Wrong!!!

Certainly you know more about the subject matter. But the subject is not all you need to know to conduct a successful in-class activity. To be effective you also have to understand things such as how your activity fits into the overall teaching plan, what the students already know, what types of additional information and experiences will be meaningful to them, how to conduct the activity so that it will be both interesting and memorable, and how to interact constructively with the students.

If you understand some key principles and learn and practice them, you’ll greatly improve your chances for having productive and satisfying experiences. If you ignore them, the students will probably be bored and you will become discouraged. It takes time to learn and follow these principles, but the results are worth it.

In working with students, it is helpful to understand a bit about their social, emotional, and intellectual development. Some of this is outlined in the overview chapter, and it’s reviewed and expanded upon here.

Social and Emotional Development

Children younger than age 10 to 12 years base their social values and find their security mainly in their families. Typically, young children from socially and emotionally healthy families are well-adjusted and relatively easy to work with — nice, normal, happy, exuberant kids. Unfortunately, many youngsters don't come from stable homes where positive social values are modeled and their needs for emotional security are met. Family disputes and break-ups; substance abuse (by either themselves or other family members); inadequate or improper food, clothing, or parental support; and families with little commitment to the importance of education are more common than most of us would like to believe. Such issues are responsible for a growing number of children ill prepared to learn. These kids frequently need special intervention to prevent them from growing into adults who pass on similar problems to the next generation. Special education classes are designed to help, but an adult volunteer willing to make a commitment to caring for and encouraging such a child can be crucial to his or her development.

As children approach and enter their teens, something remarkable happens: puberty. They not only change physically, but also socially and emotionally. With physical maturation dawns the realization that they can't stay cuddled up in mom and dad's cocoon forever; they're becoming adults, which means that they're going to have to make it in the world on their own. It is simultaneously exciting and terrifying, even to the healthiest and best-adjusted children. With these mixed emotions, they make their fledgling efforts toward independence. Their peer group becomes increasingly significant in their lives while the family becomes less so, and they begin to question values and try on new behaviors. Their time constants for change are remarkably short -- one minute they exhibit sophisticated adult behaviors and attitudes, and five minutes later, they seem to have socially and emotionally reverted to third grade. It's a time of great emotional upheaval for many children and parents alike, not to mention others who have to interact with them, such as teachers.

Fortunately, early adolescence is just a natural stage in their learning to function in society and establish their own values. While in the midst of the turmoil, however, these youngsters have an incredible need for caring adults who will simply like them, assure them that they’re going to turn out great (they are scared to death that they're ugly and/or stupid, and that they will turn out to be misfits), and help them develop the skills they'll need to succeed as adults.

By the time they reach 15 or 16 years old, the turmoil is starting to slow down for many, but for some, it goes on into their 20s. When they are juniors and seniors in high school, most of them are socially and emotionally much more stable, and are well on their way to establishing themselves as adults. At this age, however, they have a great need for respected mature adults who model appropriate behaviors and attitudes, who challenge them intellectually and socially, and who will interact nonjudgmentally with them as they struggle with difficult issues or questions.

Attitudes Toward Science

When they enter school children, are usually fascinated by the world around them. They typically have great curiosity about and positive attitudes toward science. Starting in about the third grade and continuing through about the eighth grade, however, increasing numbers of students lose interest in, and develop negative attitudes toward science. Thus, third through eighth grade is a critical time for inspiring interest, building basic skills, and avoiding premature burning of bridges.

By the time they reach high school the student population has pretty much become bimodal with respect to attitudes about science. A substantial percentage of students have essentially lost interest in and tuned out of science and math. It’s difficult to re-engage these students in the context of traditional academic classes. Perhaps the best bet is to attempt to rekindle their interests through the back door of technology. A good bit of applied science and math can be incorporated into industrial arts and other applied classes. Some uninterested students learn key science and math concepts very effectively when they are directly tied to solving specific hands-on problems.

On the other hand, some high schoolers have retained their interest in science and have developed the tools needed to continue expanding their understanding. For them, high school is the time to begin focusing more on specific content and applications of science with an eye toward career options.

Principles for Maximized Learning

In addition to understanding the basics of social, emotional, and intellectual development, you should also be familiar with the elements of effective learning experiences.

Learning versus Memorizing

Educators make an important distinction between learning and memorizing. Learning involves assimilation of new knowledge in a way that it is understood and can be applied. Memorization, on the other hand, does not necessarily involve understanding and requires only that information be recalled, not applied.

Sometimes our society mistakes memorization for learning. Perhaps this is because it’s easier to test for and quantify memorized material. It’s true that students who have learned about a topic will typically remember facts relating to it. But the remembrance of these facts is more a side-effect of learning having occurred than its essence. Facts that have simply been memorized but not integrated into a system of understanding and that can’t be appropriately applied are really not very useful (except perhaps for passing tests) and are usually not remembered for very long, either. Clearly, the goal of education should be learning, not just memorizing.

Regarding the learning of science, educators point out that each person has certain generalized mental schemes about how things in nature work. Typically, these schemes have been constructed to be consistent with the natural events we have experienced and are familiar with. Young students have very simplistic schemes -- birds and winged insects fly, therefore wings enable flight. Ph.D. scientists have more complex schemes, but like the young child's, they are constructed to be consistent with and explain observed behavior. No one's schemes, however, represent the ultimate and complete truth about nature — at best, each represents partial, but incomplete, understanding.

Educators believe that the first step in the learning process occurs when students encounter something they can’t explain in terms of their current schemes. This step is inherently student-centered. Teachers can provide interesting activities, materials, and direction to promote these encounters, but the experiences of the students are the key events. These "unexplainable" encounters might initially cause some frustration, but they also pave the way for the second step in the learning process. Here, students reevaluate their schemes in an effort to modify and make them consistent with their experiences and observations. In this stage, the teacher helps the students organize their observations, understand the shortcomings of their previous concepts, develop new schemes that correctly account for their recent experiences, and learn the language associated with the new concepts. In essence, the teacher guides the students in the discovery of new or expanded schemes. In the third step, students apply the new concepts to a variety of problems. This reinforces the concepts, ensures real understanding, and gives students practice with applying the concepts.

If the student is inherently incapable of understanding the new concept — because it requires abstract thinking skills that have not yet been developed, for example — frustration occurs. Placed in this situation, highly motivated students with strong desires to please parents and teachers will try to memorize enough to score well on tests but, lacking real understanding, will quickly forget what they’ve memorized. Other students will lose interest and give up, concluding that science is very hard and that they just can't learn it.

Besides being consistent with the students' level of intellectual development, some of the common denominators of great learning experiences are that they

  • are fun and exciting,
  • involve hands-on activities that allow students to discover the underlying principles for themselves,
  • integrate applications that are relevant to the students into the principles and theory they’re learning,
  • appeal to students having a variety of learning styles,
  • encourage students to integrate new knowledge with their existing body of knowledge and to practice applying it, and
  • are designed so that nearly all students experience success.

Fun and Excitement

If you want to get students' attention, you’d better do something that involves fun and excitement. Today's kids are accustomed to experiences that involve or portray nearly continuous action and virtually instant gratification — just check out the popular video arcades, Saturday morning cartoons, movies, and rock videos. Many young people have become conditioned to expect life to provide nearly continuous fun and excitement. As a result, they’re easily bored and inclined toward activities that provide short-term satisfaction rather than those that require short-term discipline in order to realize long-term rewards. While most of us would agree that this is unfortunate, it’s a fact of life that we need to recognize and deal with if we’re going to work effectively with students. If we want students to develop favorable impressions of science, we must incorporate fun into the learning process.

For example, in a middle and high school program on chemical bonding, students were examining the effects of temperature on the properties of rubber tubing. After demonstrating its normally flexible behavior, it is cooled in liquid nitrogen, and then students are challenged to bend it. At first, they conclude that it’s very strong, but when they exert sufficient force, it shatters dramatically into thousands of tiny pieces, which fly all over the room (safety glasses are a must). This typically creates great interest, and soon students are selecting other things they want to test and are hypothesizing about how various materials will behave at very low temperatures. This provides a great lead-in to a discussion of the molecular structure of polymers and how materials scientists engineer materials with different properties by varying chemical bonding and atomic arrangements.

Please don’t misunderstand — this does not mean that there’s no place for study, memorization, and drill. However, to get students interested in and committed to these, it’s crucial that fun and exciting activities be included with each science topic. You can play a key role by helping provide such activities. While teachers are typically better equipped to do the actual instruction, your enthusiasm for science and its applications provides a great opportunity for you to generate the excitement needed to ignite or fan the flame of interest among their students.

Hands-On, Discovery-Based

One of the worst ways to generate excitement is to give a lecture. Nearly all of us find doing things more interesting and exciting than seeing things or, worse yet, listening to things. Kids have shorter attention spans than adults, so they are much less tolerant of lecture formats than we are. Activities in which everyone becomes personally involved in thought-provoking ways provide a much more interesting format in which far more learning occurs. Hands-on activities designed to enable students to discover explanations and underlying principles by themselves provide some of the greatest learning experiences.

Once, after a scientist conducted the rubber-hose-in-liquid-nitrogen activity with several classes of seventh-graders, a young lady from one of the classes called the scientist and asked if he could provide some liquid nitrogen for her science fair experiment on how rapidly different foods freeze and thaw out. After agreeing and setting a time and place for the experiment, he encouraged her to invite a few of her friends (and remind them that this promised to be a lot of fun).

When the big day arrived, three students and the scientist tested apples, oranges, bananas, marshmallows, and dinner rolls. After running one sample of each material and finding a wide range of cooling rates, the scientists said, "I wonder what made some things get cold quickly and others take a long time." The students talked among themselves about this. (The reason he wanted several of them there was because a single student might hesitate to speculate with him, thinking that he knew the right answer and that it would be embarrassing if the guess was wrong.) When they got around to the idea that not all the samples were the same size, he asked, "Is there a better way we could have done the experiment?" After discussing this a bit, they decided to repeat the experiment using samples of equal mass.

This time, they found that the three fruits all cooled at the same rate, while the marshmallow and dinner roll took much longer. When they recognized this grouping, the scientist said, "I wonder what it is that apples, oranges, and bananas have in common that's different from marshmallows and dinner rolls." After discussing this for a while, they hit upon the idea that the three fruits contained a lot of water, while the other two items were very dry. "When a scientist has an idea like that, it's called a hypothesis," he said. "Then we try to think up an additional experiment to test the hypothesis — to see if it’s correct." After thinking for a while, the students decided to put an equal mass of water in a vegetable bag, place this in the liquid nitrogen, and measure its cooling rate. The results confirmed their hypothesis.

During that hour and a half, they discovered for themselves the concepts of controlling variables, grouping data, constructing hypotheses, and designing critical experiments to test hypotheses. And since they discovered them, they'll remember them. All the scientist did was ask leading questions at appropriate times to guide the students’ thought processes. If he’d told them at the outset to make all the samples the same size, they would have done it, but by the next day, they likely would have forgotten the concept and importance of controlling variables.

Leading kids just enough that they make the important discoveries for themselves is education at its best. Think back over your own experiences. If you're like most people, you've forgotten most of things that people told you, but the things you discovered "for yourself" are indelibly etched on your memory.

Combine Science Process with Science Content

It’s important for students to learn science content such as electricity and magnetism, the water cycle, and photosynthesis, but it’s even more important for them to develop scientific habits of mind, including critically examining claims, developing and conducting experiments to test ideas and hypotheses, making observations and measurements, sorting through and organizing information, and reasoning logically to derive valid conclusions from their observations and data. Many students will be able to become successful adults without knowing much about science content, but all of them will need logical thinking skills to be rational shoppers, intelligent voters, and full participants in adult society. How will they develop these skills? By practicing them. And what better setting to practice them in than in the context of science — the discipline based on inquiry, critical examination, experimental inquiry, and rational conclusions developed from unbiased measurements.

Interestingly, educational research shows that both science content and science process are best learned in conjunction with one another. In other words, we best learn the things we reason through and "discover" for ourselves, and we best learn logical thinking skills in the process of applying them to concrete problems. Consider the apples-and-marshmallows-in-liquid-nitrogen activity described above. It dealt with science content areas such as temperature, states of matter, phase changes, and thermal conductivity. In addition, it involved the students in science process: developing and refining experiments, making measurements, reasoning logically about the implications of the data, and debating and agreeing on rational conclusions. Teaching science in the context of inquiry-based activities promotes highly effective learning of both science content and science process.

Principles and Applications

For most people, experience with a particular physical phenomenon provides the incentive and motivation for learning about theory and principles. That is, once we become familiar with a phenomenon that fascinates us, we can discipline ourselves to struggle through the difficult parts and master them. Too often, however, our educational paradigm is to teach principles first, applications second — if time permits. Could the reason so many of our students are bored and uninterested in science be because they see no relationship between the things they’re learning in class and the world they live in? The traditional approach of teaching theory first and applications later is fundamentally unmotivational. Applications that are interesting and relevant to the students (as opposed to things that you and your professional peers find interesting) can provide the hook to stimulate interest in principles.

One good applications-oriented math exercise asks groups of students to determine the height of their school is by using a cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper or paper towels. Each group "calibrates" its tube by standing back various distances from a meter scale on the wall and determines how the vertical field of view seen through the tube changes as a function of distance. The students then go outside and see how far they have to get back from the school to just get it in the field of view. From this information, each group computes the height of the school. It can be a proportions problem, a graphing problem, or a trigonometry problem, depending on what’s being covered in class. The beauty of the exercise is that it develops the subject matter in the context of an application that is real to the students, rather than just as a rote manipulation or abstraction.

Sharing how the material they’re covering in their classes relates to interesting (and understandable) applications from your work can also stimulate interest. As professional scientists and engineers, we are ideally positioned to provide the applications link that motivates students to want to understand scientific principles.

Integration and Application

Students need to not only absorb new information, but also to integrate it with their existing knowledge and experiences and to practice applying it. Only then is the new information likely to be retained and available for their use.

When working with classes, you can find many opportunities to connect new material with activities students have done in the past. In one class, for example, activities early in the semester involve Newton's Second Law (force and acceleration) and buoyancy (floating and sinking in liquids and gases). Later in the semester, during activities involving states of matter, balloons full of various gases are cooled in liquid nitrogen. With just a little leading, students are able to go back to Newton's Second Law and both predict and explain why the balloon shrinks when the temperature is lowered and the molecules slow down. Similarly, when given time to hypothesize about whether a helium-filled balloon will rise or fall after being immersed in liquid nitrogen, they hearken back to the density activities and conclude that the balloon might fall — until it warms up, whereupon it will expand and float.

These integration experiences are crucial not only to the learning of past and present material, but also to providing practice for the application of knowledge in the real world, where very few high-level tasks require simply the recall of the "correct" answer. And the excitement in the students’ eyes when their predictions are confirmed by experiments is a priceless reward for us who dedicate our time to them.

Practice in applying new knowledge is also crucial to the learning process. All of us have had the experience of reading about something and thinking that we understand it — and then realizing when we try to apply it how limited our understanding really is. Useful knowledge is developed in the process of applying it — over and over again — to a variety of problems. This practice aspect, however, is very time consuming, so it’s usually not possible for us to incorporate this into our programs because we spend a limited amount of time with the students. By integrating our activities with the topics the teacher is covering, however, the teacher is able to do follow-up activities and provide a more complete learning experience.


One of the greatest temptations of technical professionals is to develop challenging activities that only the brightest students in the class can understand and relate to. This only reinforces the preconception of many of the youngsters that science is very hard and that they can't do it. Don't get caught in this trap. Your goal should be to help 95% of the kids believe that science is interesting and that they can do it!

Design your activities so that nearly everyone gets involved and experiences success. Experiments that are virtually impossible to mess up, such as making "slime" by mixing together polyvinyl alcohol and borax solutions, are great for young students. In some cases, this will mean working in groups rather than individually. You and the teacher might want to meet with group leaders ahead of time to enlist their support as part of the team to ensure that each student gets to participate and develop understanding.

One of the most important things you can do is help students redefine success in science — as learning something rather than knowing the correct answer at the outset. Thus, when working with students, you might ask them to make hypotheses about an experiment they are about to do. Some will construct correct hypotheses, others incorrect. If then given an opportunity to explain and discuss their hypotheses with one another, some of the students will likely see flaws in their reasoning and switch camps. When the experiment is done and the students discover which hypothesis was correct, they can then discuss why.

It is important to congratulate students whose initial hypotheses were wrong! They need to understand that they participated as real scientists, because good scientists make a hypothesis based on their best current understanding, do an experiment to test their hypothesis, and change their minds when the results of the experiment indicate that their hypothesis was wrong. You can then share with them some of your own hypotheses at work that turned out to be wrong. Also point out that you still have your job because out of the incorrect hypotheses comes increased understanding, which eventually leads to some correct hypotheses and scientific progress.

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