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Conducting a Tour of Your Workplace
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Conducting a Tour of Your Workplace

Taking students and/or teachers on a good tour of your workplace can be a very effective way to enhance science education. Such activities are highly motivational because they enable the participants to see science being applied in the real world. (For nearly everyone, applications provide the motivation for learning about principles, contrary to our traditional inclination to teach principles first, with applications to follow—maybe.) In addition, participants gain exposure to activities and equipment that could not be transported to their school; get to interact with engineers and scientists of different ages, genders, and ethnicities; and learn first-hand about various career opportunities. Nearly anyone can conduct an interesting tour that has substantial educational value and is a rewarding experience for everyone involved -- provided a few basic principles are followed. If these principles are ignored, however, a tour can be a boring experience, in which the student and teacher participants are discouraged from future interest in science and the engineers experience frustration rather than satisfaction. So read carefully the guidance offered here, and be sure that your tour is designed and conducted according to these simple, but very important, principles.

The two most important principles in conducting an effective tour are: Engage the participants in activities, rather than just showing them things and talking to them. Deal with subjects and examples that the participants can understand and relate to, rather than blowing them away with topics, examples, or technical jargon that few of them relate to or understand.

Engaging Participants in Activities

Almost everyone finds doing things more interesting than just seeing things or, worse yet, simply hearing about things. The most common mistake that we professionals make in conducting tours is to use a "show-and-tell" format. The reaction is predictable; in the parlance of the kids, "It's booooring." Don't fall into this trap.

Instead, design your tour to involve the participants in activities -- operating equipment, conducting experiments, making measurements, solving problems, and the like. Use these activities as simplified examples of the types of work you and your coworkers do.

For example, in touring a scanning electron microscopy (SEM) lab, each participant should have a (brief) chance to operate the instrument rather than just hearing about it and watching someone else operate it. This requires some planning and preparation and consideration of such questions as, How large a group can you accommodate? Will each person operate the instrument individually or in groups where each person has a particular job (for example, sample-mover, focuser, magnification-changer, photographer)? How will the appropriate controls be identified and participants be discouraged from inappropriate knob twiddling? What types of specimens should be examined? What will other students be doing when not operating the microscope? Who will supervise the microscope and other activities? And so on.

The best activities are ones in which participants solve a mystery, which can frequently be posed as a detective problem, or engage in experimentation, measuring the effects of changes in one variable on some other parameter. This helps participants understand the process of science, and it engages them in activities with interesting materials and equipment.

The most common reservations scientists and engineers express about conducting activity-oriented tours are that the time used doing activities prevents the participants from seeing as much of the worksite as they could in a more conventional "show-and-tell" and that activities require more thought and preparation. Both of these points are correct. But which is more important to you — showing off your whole facility in a way that is boring and will be quickly forgotten, or involving the participants in an exciting and memorable experience, albeit less broad? Once you get past the trauma of not showing off everything, you'll be free to select the few things that lend themselves best to interesting activities. And while activity-oriented tours do require more thought and preparation, the payoff in participant enthusiasm and learning make the effort well worth it — just ask any of us who have quit doing show-and-tells.

If you have a good slide show or videotape that presents an overview of your facility or shows exciting activities that would be impossible for participants to be involved in, show it before or after your activity. But be sure that it's brief!

Being Age Appropriate

In order to be successful, activities must be understandable and interesting. The other common mistake we professionals make in conducting tours is to deal with things that are difficult to understand because they are too complex or not sufficiently visual, because we use examples that the participants can’t relate to, or because we use confusing technical jargon.

To avoid these pitfalls, first, avoid the temptation to focus your tour on particular issues, phenomena, or equipment just because your professional contemporaries find them interesting or impressive. You might have the greatest ion beam accelerator on earth, but it's unlikely to excite a group of fifth-graders because they can't see it do anything and they don't even know what ions are.

Instead, select things that are highly visual and will excite kids of the age you’re working with. Sometimes the best things are those we overlook because of their simplicity and our familiarity with them. The incidental equipment and supplies of our labs — voltmeters, oscilloscopes, hardness testers, microscopes, liquid nitrogen, etc. — can be fascinating for kids when they’re incorporated into a good activity.

Many times, activities with simple equipment can be used to help students understand more complex processes. For example, since seventh-graders are not familiar with integrated circuits, they aren’t likely to have much appreciation for photolithography. On the other hand, using cameras to reduce spy messages to fit under a postage stamp and enlargers to subsequently print and read them provides an exciting vehicle for illustrating the principles of photolithography in a way the students can relate to. It also sets you up to describe how photolithography enables the miniaturization of electronic circuits.

Second, in selecting examples, use ones that the participants understand and can relate to. For a scanning electron microscope demonstration, "familiar" samples such as fruit flies, light bulb filaments, Velcro, etc., are better than "foreign" samples such as integrated circuits and fracture surfaces.

Finally, go over your explanations ahead of time and eliminate all nonessential or inappropriate theory and complexity. Fifth-graders don't need to know about secondary electron and X-ray generation in order to look at fruit flies and gain an appreciation for scanning electron microscopy. On the other hand, high school chemistry or physics students should be able to appreciate these concepts in conjunction with activities involving microanalysis.

Similarly, you should carefully scrub your explanations of technical jargon and acronyms. Call the CRT the video tube, the SEM the scanning electron microscope, and so on. For younger children, it’s particularly important that you simplify your vocabulary — in an SEM lab tour, refer to focusing as "sharpening the picture” and to changing the magnification as “making the picture bigger or smaller." Again, forethought and planning are required, but the dividends are well worth it.

Other Suggestions

In addition to these two most commonly violated principles — being engaging and being age appropriate — several other issues are worthy of your attention.

Teachers should be involved in every stage of the process. When included in planning the tour, teachers can contribute in a multitude of ways: by helping plan activities that integrate effectively into areas the students are currently studying, by helping you understand the level of the students' understanding and vocabulary, by introducing the students ahead of time to the type of work you or your company does, and by providing background that will better prepare the students for the activities they will be experiencing.

After your plan is formulated, it might be helpful to do a dry run of your tour with the teacher. Let him or her know that you want the tour to be an outstanding experience and that constructive criticisms, rather than offending you, will be appreciated as a means of helping you to reach that goal. Be sure the teacher is also present during the tour and knows that you want him or her to point out to you ways you are missing the mark (for example, the teacher could say, "A micrograph — is that a picture taken using a microscope?")

Finally, after the tour is over, get feedback from the teacher on what parts were most effective and how other parts could be improved. By acting on the teacher's suggestions, you can continually improve your tour.

Make sure that you carefully plan the logistics ahead of time. Consider issues such as these: What safety equipment should be available? What areas should be closed off? How many adult assistants will be required, and what preparation do they need? What supplies will be needed? What things can go wrong, and what provisions should be made for these eventualities? It’s also a good idea to have nametags available so that you can call everyone by name.

During the tour, I take advantage of opportunities to relate how what the participants are currently learning in their classes will pay off later and to encourage them to be diligent in their studies. This can often be worked into a closing statement. For example: "When I was in seventh grade and learning for the first time about atomic bonding, I couldn’t understand why I had to learn that stuff. It didn't seem that I'd ever need to know it. Now I use it every day to figure out how to control the properties of materials, just like we’ve been doing in our experiments today. That enables me to have a really interesting job and also to earn a good salary — a tough combination to beat. If you work hard in school, it will pay off in similar ways for you."

Try to provide some materials and/or follow-up activities that students can take home or back to the classroom as a remembrance or to reinforce and/or extend the primary principles dealt with on the tour. You might, for instance, give the class a poster showing different parts of the fruit fly that the students photographed using the scanning electron microscope.

Finally, have fun and be fun to be with. One of the stereotypes worth destroying is that engineers and scientists are a dull and serious bunch who care only about inanimate objects and rarely have any fun. Hopefully, that's not you. Your attitude will likely be contagious — either way!

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