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Gaining Support from Administrators and Colleagues

As someone seeking to gain administrative support for your own efforts or to engage scientists in outreach, the first order of business may be to demonstrate to your institutional colleagues that outreach is in everyone's best interest. We suggest you begin by educating them about the current state of science education in the United States as well as its economic implications. Revisit "Why Worry about K-12 Education?" to review the relevant data and analyses. Remember, if you can’t convince your colleagues of the critical need to improve K-12 education, it’s unlikely that they will be willing to support your efforts.

Although national competitiveness issues may persuade your colleagues that better K-12 education is a critical need, they may, of course, remain unconvinced that institutions of higher education can do anything about it. Refer to "Ways to Support K-12 Education" for examples of how scientists can affect K-12 education.

Once scientists and administrators understand that they can help, you need to convince them that they should. Altruism may be enough to motivate individuals initially, but helping scientists see the benefits that will accrue to them through participating in partnerships will strengthen and help sustain their commitment. Institutions must be shown how the proposed activities are consistent with their mission and that it is in their own best interest to support them.

Some potential benefits of partnering with K-12 educators are outlined below. The ideas are not presented in any particular order. Please choose the ones that you think your colleagues will find most compelling, depending on your unique circumstances. Not all of them will be relevant to your organization, and some may need to be adapted. They should, however, provide a starting point for gathering arguments. Don’t forget to supplement these with any site-specific benefits you’re aware of.

There’s one other point to consider as you embark on this endeavor. Since 1990, in large part due to the publication of "Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate," many institutions have adopted broader definitions of scholarship in their reward, promotion, and tenure structures (Boyer, 1990). As a result, you may find that your administration believes that it already encourages and supports outreach through this expanded definition of scholarship. In reality, however, for the vast majority of both universities (including those that claim an institutional change) and liberal arts colleges, little has changed. Faculty salary remains strongly positively correlated with research publications and negatively correlated with hours spent teaching (Fairweather, 2005). Further, scholarship in formats other than research publications, regardless of the type, appears to be given little weight in salary, tenure, and promotion decisions (Boyer, 1990; Link et al., 2008; O’Meara, 2005; Youn and Price, 2009). So, even if your administrators are receptive to your goals, you may need to work with them to develop an institutional culture that respects and rewards outreach activities.

Impact on Faculty Teaching

Several external forces are forcing postsecondary institutions to think more about ways to measure and demonstrate student learning. Effective teaching is essential for good learning outcomes, yet many scientists complete their graduate education with little or no teaching experience. It’s not uncommon for teaching assistants to do no more than grade exams and hold office hours that few students come to. Often, students complete no formal pedagogical coursework during graduate school, and their faculty mentors -- who themselves have had little or no training -- are often unable or unwilling to provide significant informal guidance. Thus, scientists commonly arrive at their university faculty positions ill-prepared to teach.

In recognition of these deficiencies, some universities have created teaching centers. These centers typically acquaint faculty with modern teaching methods, including collaborative teaching techniques. Unfortunately, few faculty actually take the time to seek teaching help, and those who do try to adopt modern practices are penalized, presumably because of the time lost from research during course development (Boyer, 1990).

Scientist involved in partnerships consistently report that their pedagogy is improved through their relationships with teachers. What K-12 educators may lack in scientific content knowledge, they make up for in pedagogical skills. Scientists learn from them new, more effective ways to present material, assess students, work with diverse groups, and communicate in plain English. Outreach activities can supplement the work of teaching centers and may reduce some of the associated costs. And, of course, improving the teaching abilities of researchers is relevant to the mission of every academic institution.

Impact on Graduate Students and Fellows

The focus of graduate programs has always been on training scientists for academic tenure-track positions. This approach made sense in the 1970s, when roughly two-thirds of Ph.D. biomedical scientists worked in academia and 57% of faculty held tenure-track positions. However, by 2005, the fraction of faculty holding full-time, tenure-track positions across all disciplines had dropped to 32%. Moreover, just over a quarter of Ph.D. biomedical scientists held tenure-track positions, and large decreases in the fraction of tenured physics faculty had also occurred (Curtis and Jacobe, 2006; Ivie et al., 2005). These data suggest that graduate programs may need to adjust to the changing needs of their students and realities of the workplace. As more and more Ph.D.s are employed as lecturers or adjunct faculty whose sole or primary responsibility is teaching, it’s imperative that graduate students and fellows be given the opportunity to improve their teaching skills.

A survey of graduate students in the University of California system looked at their career goals (Mason et al., 2009). About a quarter of students entering Ph.D. programs (20% of men; 28% of women) anticipated a career as a professor at an institution with a teaching emphasis. This proportion remained essentially constant throughout graduate school (19% of men; 27% of women). In contrast 45% of men and 39% of women respondents planned to pursue careers as professors with a research emphasis when they started their Ph.D. programs. When students were asked a year or more later, though, only 36% of men and 27% of women named that their career goal. "In the eyes of many doctoral students, the academic fast track has a bad reputation -- one of unrelenting work hours that allow little or no room for a satisfying family life," according to the survey” (Curtis and Jacobe, 2006).

The survey indicated that nearly half of the surveyed graduate students planned careers outside either teaching or research. Interest in careers in business and government and other types of academic careers grew as interest in careers as faculty at research institutions waned. This means we should be paying attention to preparing trainees for careers off the bench and outside the college classroom. Involving graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in scientist-educator partnerships improves their communication skills, acquaints them with alternative career opportunities, and gives them networking opportunities outside the academic laboratory context. All of these will enhance their abilities to find rewarding work that applies their scientific training to nontraditional careers. It’s worth noting here that in 2001, 18% of Fortune 500 CEOs got their bachelor’s degrees in engineering — more than any other field including business administration (15%) and economics (7%) (Ivie et al. 2005) In 2005, this number had increased to 20% (U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 2005).

Impact on Research

Administrators commonly assume that K-12 educator-scientist partnerships take time away from college teaching or research. However, researchers usually participate in outreach activities in their “free time,” at least initially. As their commitment increases, they tend to do this to fulfill their service requirement. So, at least in the early phases, it’s unlikely that there will be a significant impact on an investigator's research or teaching time, but rather, a change in the nature of their service.

As scientists become more involved in partnerships, however, they certainly may have less time to devote to "bench science." This is a tremendous concern to scientists because despite “reform” movements at most universities and colleges, the single largest predictor of salary within any academic level is the number of scholarly publications (Boyer, 1990; Youn and Price, 2009). What scientists and academic institutions often fail to recognize, though, is that outreach can give them a rich, new venue for scholarly research and publications. That is, significant involvement in outreach need not result in a decline in the number or quality of publications, but rather a shift in the types. The same scientist could author a paper on the effects of stem cells on wound healing as well as a manuscript about the impact of a particular classroom intervention on student attitudes toward research or on the relevance of current state standards to college preparedness.

With respect to trainees, mentors often worry that outside activities will interfere with the time they devote to research. Trainees themselves govern how little or much time they spend in the laboratory, however, and whether they spend their free time watching television, playing softball, or socializing in the lab is up to them. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to the student, laboratory, and institution if some of that free time were spent working with schools? Furthermore, time in the lab does not equate to productivity, and outreach could actually improve productivity. Graduate students who participate in outreach activities report that they return to their laboratories refreshed and more enthusiastic about their research afterwards (Busch and Tanner, 2006).

Impact on Communication Skills

It’s not news to most scientists that their ability to communicate effectively with the public (or even their families) about their work is woefully lacking. Many see this as either rather comical or insignificant. Yet a positive attitude of the public toward science ensures high levels of government funding, acceptance of new scientific ideas, and cooperation in public health initiatives. Moreover, many policy issues that affect the scientific endeavor — such as regulations on the use of animals in research, visas for visiting scholars, and conflict-of-interest rules — are affected by the public’s perception of science. Effective communication with the public by scientists is important.

In addition, with the burgeoning of interdisciplinary research, scientists are increasingly required to communicate their science to scientifically mixed audiences. The inability to do so can be detrimental to the researcher not only because of the difficulty in attracting potential collaborators but also in garnering funding. Mixed grant-review panels will be reluctant to score highly a submission that they can’t understand. Further, a lay evaluation is a component of the review process for some private funding agencies. If the lay panel can’t make sense of the proposal, they’re unlikely to recommend funding. Scientists who learn to explain their research to students, teachers, and school board members should have little difficulty in doing the same for grant reviewers.

Participants in the GK-12 Program (which engages graduate students in partnerships with K-12 teachers) reported that they both learned to better communicate their science to a varied audience and improved their communication skills overall (Busch and Tanner, 2006).

Impact on Funding

One reason that many administrators and scientists are averse to scientist-educator partnerships is a perception that external grant support will be lost. The reasoning is that if scientists become very involved in K-12–related activities, they will have less time to devote to laboratory-based research, which will impact their capacity to attract funding for that work.

However, as with other scholarly endeavors, outreach activities have their own sources of funding. The same federal entities that fund the lion's share of laboratory-based research, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, also award grants for K-12 educator-scientist partnerships. Additionally, many companies and corporations, particularly those that depend on well-trained scientists and engineers for their workforce, support K-12 outreach activities. Even corporations that do not do so on a large scale often fund projects in communities where they have a significant local presence. State departments of education may also have resources that are dedicated to outreach activities.

There’s another, more subtle way that K-12 educator-scientist partnerships may affect university finances (Heppner, 2009). Consider a 10,000-student university with a tuition of $15,000 and a typical freshman attrition rate of about 30% (that is, 750 students out of 2,500). Now suppose that that loss could be reduced by just 25 students. That translates to $375,000 in tuition revenue annually, or more than $1.1 million over the remaining three years until graduation for those students.

How does outreach affect retention? ACT found that among the 10 factors that positively correlate with college student retention, academic self-confidence ranked second (Lotkowski et al., 2004). Since outreach activities improve teaching, and good teaching fosters academic self-confidence in students, partnerships may affect student retention and an institution's bottom line. Moreover, if undergraduates are included in university- or college-sponsored outreach activities, not only do they gain even more academic self-confidence, but they also they become more socially involved in and committed to the university, both of which are also strongly correlated with student retention (Heppner, 2009).

Impact on Recruitment of Women and Minorities

Prospective students want to see that their interests can be met at any given institution. Women and people of color self-report more involvement in community engagement than their white male counterparts, so the prospect of involvement in outreach activities may affect the choice of institution (Colbeck and Wharton-Michael, 2006). Further, both of these groups have more difficulty adjusting to graduate work than their white male peers in part because they find that teaching and service, two activities that initially attracted them to graduate school, are not valued as highly as research (Aguirre, 2000; Antonio et al., 2000; Tierney and Bensimon).

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