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Planning and Preparing Successful Activities (Eckelmeyer, 1995)

Coordinating with the Teacher — The Foundation for Success

With the principles of child development under your belt and an appreciation for the elements of successful learning experiences, you're ready to start implementing specific activities. Do not try to do it on your own, or you will be overlooking, and possibly alienating, the person who could be your greatest supporter and guide: the students' teacher.

The teacher knows far more than you do about cognitive development, the structure and goals of the curriculum, classroom management, and the abilities, limitations, and learning styles of the students. On the other hand, you might know more about science content and how science is applied in the real world. By working together as a team, you can make each other's jobs more productive and interesting. If you and the teacher work independently or, worse yet, in competition with one another, your efforts with students are not nearly as likely to be productive.

Before beginning to plan a meaningful activity, you should discuss several issues with the teacher. First and foremost, you must assure the teacher that you want to assist and supplement his or her efforts, not criticize, belittle, or change what he or she is doing. If the teacher sees you as a threat, you will start out with two strikes against you. Your preliminary discussions with the teacher should also include topics such as how the science content of your activities can be integrated into the curriculum, determining your role and how your activities fit in to the overall teaching plan, and understanding what background knowledge students are likely to have.

It’s important for you to plan your activities to fit into and strengthen the curriculum and overall teaching strategy. Activities that are unrelated to what the students are learning in their classes might provide interesting diversions, but those that introduce, reinforce, or illustrate applications of current curriculum topics have far more impact. Talk with the teacher and find out when in the semester topics related to your professional interests will be covered and when there might be opportunities for you to do enrichment activities with the students. Then, present your activities when they coincide with coverage of the pertinent or related topics in class.

In addition to coordinating your activities with the curriculum, you should determine with the teacher what role in the teaching process your activity will play and what its goals will be. Very rarely will your activity comprise all of the instruction in a particular topic area. Occasionally, you’ll be introducing a new topic area. In these cases, activities that serve as appetite whetters and curiosity arousers are very appropriate, and relatively little time should be spent on in-depth explanations. Many times, your activities will be dealing with real world applications of the principles being studied in class. It is essential that these be applications the students can understand and relate to.

Concentrate on activities where you have something to offer that the teacher simply couldn't provide — experience with real world applications, special supplies or equipment, and so on. Avoid activities in which the teacher could easily do everything that you will do. That's the teacher's job, and he or she can almost surely do it better than you can.

Two of the most common mistakes of technical professionals are

  • making incorrect assumptions about students' level of knowledge and
  • using vocabulary that students don't understand.
For each activity, have the teacher explain to you what background knowledge the students should have, including what vocabulary terms have been used in class. Then, review your tentative activity plans with the teacher to get a reality check on whether it’s at an appropriate level for the students.

Some teachers might worry that they will offend you by offering criticisms of your plan. Try to overcome this by letting the teacher know that you really want the activity to be an outstanding experience for the students and that you’ll appreciate constructive criticisms that help you reach that goal.

Go over your planned explanations carefully, and get rid of as much technical jargon as possible. Be especially careful to avoid using acronyms. It is particularly important that you simplify your vocabulary for younger children. Since technical terms are second nature to scientists, it takes a strong conscious effort to avoid using them in situations where they cause confusion. For technical terms that are essential, prepare to explain them clearly in terms that youngsters can understand. Be sure that the teacher will be present during the activity and that he or she has your permission to interrupt and/or question you in order to clarify issues that the students are not understanding.

Structuring Successful Activities

After you've done this preliminary preparation with the teacher and identified a topic area, you're ready to begin fleshing out your plan. Begin by going back over the principles for maximized learning.(in Working Effectively with Children) Keeping in mind the level of intellectual development of the age group, think about potential activities that would be fun and exciting, involve hands-on discovery experiences, demonstrate practical applications that the students can understand and relate to, involve various learning styles, and give nearly all the students a feeling of success and accomplishment.

Tap into the resources listed in "Ideas and Resources" to discover and investigate things that others have done. Consider how you might use or adapt one or more of these for part of your program. Put each idea through the screens of age-appropriateness and learning principles, and distill your list down to a few of the best possibilities. The teacher might be very helpful in this process, particularly if you're relatively inexperienced. Then, begin to develop an order in which several related activities could be strung together, consistent with the following principles.

Start with a Grabber to Generate Interest and Focus Attention

Don’t assume that students are going to start out sitting on the edges of their seats just dying for the pearls of wisdom that you're going to drop on them. Your first task is to win their attention. Activities or demonstrations that involve something dramatic or unexpected are terrific for this purpose. Be sure, however, that this introductory activity ties in with the topic at hand because, once you have their attention, you'll want to be able to make a logical transition to your next activity or segment.

When doing a program with middle schoolers on force and acceleration, one scientist started by wrapping up a student volunteer skateboarder in many layers of bubble wrap packaging material, giving him a bike helmet, putting him onto a skateboard, and running him into the wall (carefully, of course). After that, everyone paid attention! Then, the bubble wrap was taken off and the class feinted doing the "experiment" over. This led into an interactive discussion of how the force applied to the volunteer's body and the suddenness of his change in speed vary with the number of layers of bubble wrap. Out of this, the students developed an appreciation for the principle that force scales with the suddenness of change in speed. Only after this "intuitive" understanding had been developed did the scientist present and begin discussion about applications of Newton's Second Law of Motion, F = ma.

Design Clear Connections and Transitions between Activities

Many of your programs will involve several activities. It’s important that these be clearly connected, not only in your mind, but in the students' minds. Too often we abruptly finish one thing and move on to something else in a way that disrupts continuity, when just a few words of transition would build these activities into a much more coherent whole.

In the middle school program on Newton's Laws, one scientist starts with the skateboard activity to generate excitement and develop qualitative understanding. Then he moves on to a more quantitative activity where he and the students interactively estimate the forces applied to humans in accident scenarios that are part of the students' world, such as a skier running into a tree or an outfielder running into the wall. After that, he progresses to a description of how engineers did very similar calculations to determine what damage would occur to a transportation system during a severe accident. He then shows a five-minute videotape of destructive testing of a few transportation systems (most middle schoolers are "into" destruction). Finally, he explains that the few destructive tests were used to verify calculations. Once it was clear that the calculations were correct, it was possible to do most of the "testing" by computer rather than by having to perform a large number of very expensive "real" crashes. Logical sequencing and good transitions between activities help make the entire program a coherent package rather than a series of disconnected activities.

Build from Simple to Complex, Concrete to Abstract

Start with simple, concrete examples and activities that virtually everyone will readily understand. As students experience these initial successes, they will gain the confidence and knowledge that will enable them to tackle progressively more complex and abstract challenges.

Don't try to pack too much into a single session, however. It's much better to do a little bit well than to attempt to do so much that you end up confusing most of the class. Initially, you should look to the teacher for guidance in this area. As you gain experience you'll start to get the hang of how complex and abstract you can get before you start to lose people, as well as how long various kinds of activities are likely to take.

Not all your activities should be highly structured. Some of the greatest learning experiences occur during times of purposeful messing around because they provide terrific opportunities for student discovery experiences to occur.

Plan a Strong Closing

It’s good to close with something that enables the kids to prove to themselves that they've learned something. A puzzle, problem, or experiment that they will be able to solve or correctly predict the outcome of works well as a closer. When students get it right, let them know and encourage them. This will strongly reinforce their learning experience and also pave the way for a positive next visit. Finish with a positive statement about how much they've learned and how efforts that they make now will pay dividends in the future, rather than a bland statement like, "That's all I have for today."

For example, in a middle school program that relates atomic bonding to the properties of engineering materials, you can close by having students hypothesize and explain in terms of molecular structure what will happen if they stretch a rubber band, place it in liquid nitrogen, and then remove it and put it on the overhead projector. Initially, most of them reason that the rubber band stretches by carbon-carbon bond rotation resulting in molecular chain straightening (which they've discussed previously) but that when it is then cooled, the carbon-carbon bonds will no longer be able to rotate, so the rubber band will remain stretched when released. Then someone says, "But not forever," and explains that as the material heats up, bond rotation will again be possible, so the chains will recurl and the rubber band will eventually return to its unstretched shape. Pretty soon, the whole class agrees, so then they can do the experiment. When it happens exactly as students had predicted, take advantage of the opportunity to compliment them on how much they've learned, tell them about the great careers available for chemists and materials scientists, encourage them to continue to take their studies seriously, and tell them how much you’re looking forward to future activities with them if any are planned.

The closing also provides an excellent opportunity to encourage students to tell someone who was not in the class about what they did and learned. This gives them opportunities to be "the experts," and it also prompts them to think back through the activities and principles, thus fixing them in their minds. It’s also a good time to give each student something from your program to keep, particularly something they can use to tell their friends or parents about what they did and learned. Just make sure that it’s not something that could hurt someone.

Know Where You Will Cut If Time Runs Short

Even the best-laid programs of mice and men often take longer than expected. You might be able to run a bit overtime in an elementary school where the students don't change classes, but in a middle or high school, when the bell rings, you are history. Plan how much time you expect each segment of your program to take, and keep track of how you’re doing relative to your time projection. Know what you can either condense or eliminate if you’re running behind schedule. It’s almost always better to cut something than to try to squeeze everything into a shorter time, but be careful not to cut an activity in which knowledge or skills that will be needed for a subsequent portion are developed. At all cost, save time for your closing activity and comments — these are too important to eliminate.

Plan for and Model Safety

Be certain that all your activities are safe and environmentally sound, and do not violate any school guidelines. Make sure that you have the appropriate safety equipment available. Remember, your job is not only to be safe, but also to model good safety awareness and environmental consciousness.

One time to do this modeling is when you’re repeatedly emphasizing the theme that scientists and engineers do not primarily memorize facts, but rather do experiments. Each time you mention this, perhaps in the form of a question, you could explain that before good scientists do an experiment, they think about ways it could harm people, property, or the environment, and they either take appropriate precautions to avoid such damage or cancel the experiment. The students then participate in projecting the potential dangers in the proposed experiments and help determine what precautions need to be taken (or what experiments suggested by classmates are too dangerous).

Reinforcing this theme in repeated visits provides a good learning experience and also helps overcome the myth that scientists are a bunch of wild-eyed fanatics who do dangerous things and are oblivious to environmental concerns.

Do Not Overlook Logistics

What supplies and equipment will be available at the school and what will you have to bring? What must you do to reserve school equipment? How many students will you be working with, what size groups will they be in, and how many sets of supplies or equipment will you need? Are there enough electrical outlets available? How much time will you have to set up, clean up between groups, and pack up at the end? Will you provide name tags for the kids? (Calling them by name goes a long way toward building the relationships in which learning thrives.)

Think about these types of issues ahead of time and make the appropriate preparations. Remember that youngsters are easily distracted. Once you get rolling, you don’t want to disturb the continuity of your activity to hunt down something you forgot -- the attention of the students will likely be lost and you might have a difficult time getting them to refocus.

Presenting Your Activity

Well, the fateful day finally arrives -- you get to go to the school and present your program. If you’ve done your homework you'll be well prepared with activities that should be both interesting and educational. But there's one more thing you need to know about: how to interact effectively with the students. Working with students has a strong relational component. If they view you favorably, your chances of having a positive impact are substantially enhanced. You don't have to act like a kid to be liked by kids; in fact, many young people recognize such behavior as phony, and there's nothing worse you can do with kids than come across as phony. Their view of you will be strongly influenced by your attitudes toward them. Here are a few tips:

  • If you’re not excited about the activities that you’re doing with them, it’s unlikely that they will be, either. But your excitement can spread to others. Don't be overly serious. Enjoy yourself! Smile and laugh some. It's contagious.
  • Demonstrate that you like them. One of the best ways to do this is to call them by name. They will really be impressed if you do this outside class when they’re not wearing name tags.
  • Take an interest in them. Talk with them in the halls and at lunch time. Don’t know what to talk about? That’s great — you should not be doing most of the talking, you should be listening. Ask them about their interests. Once you find out what interests them, continue asking questions that encourage them to share more about these areas.
  • Don’t ask questions that can be answered "yes" or "no." Pose open-ended questions, such as, "How did you get interested in ....?" "What have been some of your favorite experiences?" and "What things have required a lot of work or practice, but then have paid off?" Notice that there’s a progression to these questions. They start out impersonal and nonthreatening, and gradually enable the student to share more deeply of his or her experiences and feelings. Your part is mostly to listen and express interest. When students conclude that you’re interested in them, they will start to like you and pay attention to what you have to say.

Give Lots of Positive Feedback

Set the students up to be successful, and when they succeed, point out specific things they did that helped them succeed. Even mistakes can be dealt with creatively. When someone volunteers something that is incorrect, don’t tell them that they’re wrong; instead, ask them why they think they’re right. Frequently, in the process of explaining their logic to you or to the class, they will discover their own mistake — then you can compliment them on their discovery. Or, if they think their logic is correct, you can present your logic and have the class discuss and compare these two perspectives. If the class can’t come to an agreement, try to develop and do an experiment to find out whose position is correct.

Then, point out that this is how science really works: rather than knowing all the right answers, scientists make hypotheses and do experiments to test the hypotheses. The best scientists aren't those whose hypotheses are always right, but the ones who are willing to change their minds when the experiments disprove their hypotheses. Remember that developing these types of critical thinking and reasoning skills is at least as important as learning facts about particular science topics.

Treat Them with Respect and Expect Them to Behave Responsibly
If you try to blow the kids away with how much you know, you will succeed. However, you will also convince most of them that they could never understand or do science. If you try to impress them with the elegance of theory, they will go to sleep. The only people who appreciate a theory are those who understand its applications. And never, ever try to impress students with your coolness by putting down one of their classmates. The target of your "humor" will hate you forever. Feel free to poke fun at yourself but never at one of them. They will be most impressed with you if you simply demonstrate that you like them and want to help them to learn something.

If they start getting a bit rowdy, explain your expectations, and let them know that your continued interactions with them will depend on their behavior. Most kids will respond well to this. If not, deal with the problem students privately, if possible, not in front of their peers. Criticize their inappropriate behavior, don't attack them as people. For the most part, you should have an agreement with the teacher that he or she is responsible for dealing with classroom management issues. In general, most young people respond well to someone they know cares about them and places high expectations on them for responsible behavior.

Follow Up

Now you’ve completed your first activity. Don’t stop here or you will have lost at least two great opportunities.

First, offer and provide-follow up assistance to the teacher and students. Give them opportunities to read more about interesting applications of the topic, places they can visit, or science fair projects they could do. Encourage them to write follow-up letters to you with their comments and any questions they think of later. Then, be sure to write back, taking the opportunity to reinforce a few main principles. Second, have the teacher review your program, pointing out things that went well and things that could be improved. This will help you understand how to do an even better job next time.

Speaking of next time, don’t forget to find out what topics they will be covering in the next month or two, and offer to come back. As you and the students get to know one another, your times with them will become increasingly productive. You will grow in your understanding of how to interact effectively with them, and they will become more and more eager for your visits. Best of all, you’ll get to see their growing understanding of and excitement about science.

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