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Ways to Support K-12 Education

There are many ways to contribute, so you'll have to start zeroing in on the type of involvement that's right for you. You should consider your personal background, skills, and interests, as well as the needs of your community. Some of the key issues you'll need to address involve the needs of the people with whom you will primarily interact. A few of the most significant factors to consider are discussed below. After that we provide four resources to help you decide what role you might want to play.

What’s Best for You? (Eckelmeyer, 1995)

Temperament and Commitment

First, consider your own temperament. Although pretty much any role you play will involve interactions with at least one teacher, it’s important to consider whether you like to work alone or in groups. Do you want to be a mentor for a particular student for a science fair or co-organize the fair? Also, are you comfortable speaking to adults but not children? If so, you might want to consider professional development or working on systemic issues with teachers, parents, and school boards but avoid classroom presentations. Another factor to consider is degree of commitment. As a novice, it may make sense to start with a short-term commitment until you can home in on the area of involvement best suited to your interests and talents. Finally, whatever the endeavor, unless it involves only working directly with students, you will find it essential to learn more about educational issues. While this document can serve as a primer, there are more than 16,000 school districts, and each has its own unique issues. If you take the time to listen, your teacher partners can be an outstanding resource, but you will likely have to learn more on your own. Is this something you want to do?

District, Teacher, or Student Directed

Should you concentrate on serving as an advocate for systemic change at the school board level or higher, provide support to teachers, or work directly with students? Working for science education reform provides the greatest leverage. If you do this, however, it is crucial that you be well aware of and connected to the national reform effort. Otherwise, you could contribute to the problem rather than being part of the solution. In addition, working "in the trenches" with a particular school for a year or so frequently goes a long way toward overcoming naiveté and winning the right to be heard at higher levels.

Working with teachers has some big advantages. First, most of us are already more familiar with and adept at communicating with adults than with children. By working with teachers, we don’t need to know as much about teaching and learning processes as we would if we worked with students. Second, since each teacher interacts with many students, there’s considerable leverage in working with teachers. Third, once you help a teacher become more knowledgeable and comfortable in teaching a science, those enhanced capabilities remain, even after you have gone.

On the other hand, working directly with students enables you to serve as a positive role model. It is particularly important for students to become acquainted with professional role models who are women, ethnic minorities, or disabled. Working with students also provides contacts out of which mentoring relationships can grow, positive images of science and engineering can be fostered, and awareness of career opportunities can be expanded.

Grade Level

Will you concentrate your efforts at the elementary, middle school, or high school level? Elementary school is where initial concepts and attitudes are developed, so there are great opportunities there. The experience of Sandia National Laboratories suggests that the upper elementary grades (3 to 5 or 6) are where most scientists and engineers can have the greatest impact and experience the greatest satisfaction. Although you can help students learn specific science content, it may be more important for you to encourage students to develop positive attitudes toward science and to learn science process skills, such as experimenting, measuring, observing, and drawing conclusions from information. Many elementary teachers know very little about science and are very eager for any help they can get. Elementary school students are curious, exuberant, cute, and relatively unjaded, so they tend to be easier to work with than their older brothers and sisters.

Middle schools deal with students during their transition from childhood to adulthood. This is where the greatest numbers of students either catch the spark of excitement for science or intellectually drop out, so there’s the potential for you to have a great impact on this age group. The primary challenge is to help them associate interesting and relevant applications with science principles. The physical, emotional, and social changes associated with these in-between years, however, make these students less predictable than either elementary or high schoolers, so they have the reputation of being the most challenging to work with (but for some of us, they're our favorites). Middle school teachers vary widely in their training and knowledge of science content. Some have trained as elementary teachers and have little formal science background, whereas others have trained to be secondary teachers and have extensive knowledge in one or more science disciplines.

High schools typically have science teachers who are well versed in the content they are teaching but are frequently eager for help in areas such as science applications and new developments, as well as in loans of or assistance with specialized equipment and experiments. High school students who have not burned their bridges in the area of science frequently need help that’s more oriented toward understanding content, applications, and relationships between science topics and career and college choices. In lower socioeconomic neighborhoods there are frequently highly motivated students whose families are ill-prepared to help them with academic and career issues who can benefit enormously from mentoring relationships.

Achievement Level

Perhaps the natural inclination of most scientists and engineers is to work with high achievers. There are opportunities for great payoffs here, for these students will be some of the leaders and trailblazers of the next generation. In addition, they are typically highly motivated, serious about learning, well-behaved, and expressive in their appreciation of your efforts.

At the other extreme are the at-risk students -- those who for a variety of family, peer group, socioeconomic, or other reasons are in danger of becoming adults who are drains on our society rather than productive contributors. It is entirely possible that, unless a major portion of this growing group is successfully motivated and enabled to become productive citizens, our societal well-being will be in jeopardy. While the challenges here are great, the needs are enormous, and those you help will remember you forever.

Finally, there is the great middle group -- those who, like most of us, are neither gifted nor at-risk. Out of this group will logically come the bulk of tomorrow's work force and voters, those who will be responsible for ensuring our well-being when we are retired (what a scary thought!). Will they have the tools to work, live, and vote intelligently in an increasingly complex technological world? You can help ensure that they will.

Cutting across all of these groups, there are particularly outstanding opportunities for engineers and scientists who are women and members of ethnic minorities to serve as role models for youth, encouraging them to break through the barriers of stereotyping and to overcome the historical underrepresentation of such groups in the technical community.

School-Based versus Out-of-School

When we think of education, school is typically the first thing that comes to mind. There are, however, numerous other organizations that are becoming increasingly involved in science education. Groups such as 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the like are beginning to expand their traditional roles and place more emphasis on science. In addition, national organizations like Hands-On-Science and a host of similar local groups that conduct science activities with children and parents are springing up.

The activities of some of these groups are often conducted after school or in the evening, making them easier to schedule than during school hours. Typically, they have a predetermined set of activities to conduct, so less imagination is required and less flexibility is available. While these chapters have been prepared primarily to assist engineers and scientists in working with schools, the same principles apply to working with these other groups.

Gain Public Trust through Understanding (NHGRI, 2009a)

Whoever you choose to work with, it’s important to realize that people have a paradoxical attitude toward science . They are put off by what they perceive as the know-it-all attitude of scientists and their impersonal delivery of information and yet insist that scientists solve every problem that exists. Most people believe that with enough money and effort, all problems can and will be solved.

Scientists must gain the trust of the public by generating a clear understanding of the processes of science. Mistrust evolves from the public lack of understanding. For example, the public asks the question, Why is AIDS so hard to cure? The answer is not as simple as the question.

The public has lived through the cure for polio and therefore believes that science should be able to cure AIDS. Viruses cause both diseases. People don’t realize that the HIV virus is more difficult to stop than the polio virus. The public does not understand that HIV is difficult to stop because it can mutate in a matter of hours, whereas other organisms mutate over a period of years.

This is an example of the misunderstanding of the process and nature of science. It’s this process that the scientist can best address. Using examples that are in the public eye can make high school science courses relevant. An emphasis on the process of investigation will help students transfer their knowledge to other situations as the need arises.

How to Help

So what are some of the things you can do to help teachers, particularly in the area of science? Before discussing specific options, it is worth emphasizing a few key principles. The best way to help a teacher is to become a trusted friend and teammate who respects and is responsive to the teacher’s expressed needs. Do not enter into your new relationship with a predetermined notion of what is needed or what you will do. Worse yet, do not insult the teacher's intelligence by assuming that teaching is easy, that it's a part-time job, or that he or she is doing it because they can't find a "real job." Instead, find out what the teacher is teaching, and then help them do it with excellence. You can suggest some possible ways you might contribute (see below), but be sure to also solicit the teacher's ideas, and then let him or her be the judge of which option(s) you should pursue.

Below are four resources to help you decide what role you might want to play. Each approaches the topic from a slightly different viewpoint, so it might be useful to look at all four before deciding how you want to get involved or if you want to move to a new role.

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