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Some Roles for Scientists in Science Education Today (BSCS, 2008)

Visit a Science Classroom

Traditionally, demonstrations and presentations have comprised the work of scientists in the science classroom. These can be valuable means of interacting with students, but when planning your visit, remember to keep the essential factors of inquiry in mind. Try to include hands-on activities and encourage students to discuss how or why something occurred. Take things a step further by encouraging students to answer questions that start with, What if? and, How would you explain?

For example, think of the classic liquid nitrogen demonstration. A scientist might arrive at a classroom with a Dewar flask of liquid nitrogen and a number of objects, such as a banana, a flower, an apple, and a tennis ball. The scientist can awe students as she freezes each object in the nitrogen and then smashes it on the floor. Although this demonstration might generate some temporary positive excitement and attitudes toward science, it doesn’t contribute much to substantial, long-term science education.

How could this demonstration be reworked to include scientific inquiry? Our scientist might now start the demonstration by freezing the banana and shattering it on the floor. She might ask students what they saw and why the banana shattered. She might then freeze a paper towel and try to shatter it on the floor. In this case, not much happens. She might ask students what results they observed and how they would explain the difference. The students might be allowed to “experiment” further by choosing the next few objects to freeze and observe, based on their hypothesis. From their observations of these additional objects, students may find their hypothesis to be incorrect or to be supported.

Objects like bananas shatter well in this experiment due to a high water content. The water in the banana freezes into ice crystals that are not attached to one another very well because they begin forming at many different places. In addition, cell membranes and walls freeze, making them weak. When thrown on the floor or hit with a hammer, the crystals separate easily. Think of breaking apart ice cubes that have become stuck together. Because a paper towel has a low water content, it is relatively unaffected by being frozen and dropped on the floor. Depending on the age of the students, they may not be able to discern this particular characteristic, but they should be able to define the characteristics that make an object likely to shatter.

This scenario demonstrates another important point about visiting a classroom. It is not necessary that you talk about your area of research! Presumably, the scientist in this scenario is not researching which objects shatter after being frozen in liquid nitrogen, but she recognized that she could use an inquiry-based version of this demonstration effectively in the classroom. She was able to bring her experience to students by modeling the scientific process, connecting science to a real-world event, and sharing a general passion for science. She might have augmented the science background of the teacher and students and helped end the stereotype of scientists as "nerds." There might have been a discussion about the nature of good questions that help reach the goal of answering a particular question. These important contributions help students learn critical, stepwise thinking and introduce the world of a scientist. This type of introduction to the scientific world is more valuable in science education than a detailed, content-based presentation about one’s research, not to mention more fun and flexible for you.

Classroom involvement can be short- or long-term. You may choose to spend just one afternoon in the classroom. On the other hand, you may be able to visit several times while students study a particular topic, or periodically over the course of the year. The more closely you are able to work with the teacher to understand her goals, objectives, and problems, the better you will be able to help design activities that will help achieve them.


As a guest in the science classroom, your collaboration with the teacher is very important. Start by meeting with the teacher before you plan what you want to do. You might ask questions such as, What are the topics that seem to be difficult for students? or, What are the big ideas you might like a scientist to cover in the classroom? Teachers often have particular lesson plans for particular topics, so it is best to narrow down the subject of your visit in cooperation with the teacher.

As part of meeting with the teacher, discuss the standards your visit will meet, as well as ways to assess your impact. Have the goals of your visit in mind when you plan, as well as how you will determine what students learned. You might also spend some time discussing the general scientific literacy of the students, age-appropriate content and vocabulary, and the diversity of students. You can also use this time to determine what, if any, technology will be available to you during your visit. If possible, spend some time observing the class. The more information you have before your visit to the classroom, the more effective you will be and the more smoothly things will run during your presentation.

Many professional societies provide educational resources that might be useful in planning your visit. These range from activities and lesson plans to collections of resources.

Six things to think about

  • To get started, contact the school principal or, perhaps, a teacher you know, identify yourself and explain that you would like to get involved, and then ask who you might speak to.
  • Ask the science teacher about ways you can contribute to his or her goals.
  • Listen for concerns or problems the science teacher is trying to solve.
  • Learn about the science curriculum and the students’ understanding of science.
  • Be clear about the students’ level of understanding and what you want them to learn.
  • Make sure your presentation has a clear beginning, middle, and conclusion.

Provide Professional Development, or Training, for Teachers

You may have a desire to be involved in science education but choose not to work in classrooms with students. There are many other opportunities to help with inquiry-based education. One of the challenges for classroom teachers is staying current on the latest advances in science or in topics that may fall outside the teacher’s expertise.

One way you might choose to be involved is through providing classroom support. You could serve as a resource for a teacher or school simply by answering e-mails or phone calls about particular topics. In this role, you might also be able to offer suggestions about hands-on activities or real-world situations that would enhance particular topics.

Workshops are a great way to allow teachers to learn more about science topics. You might serve as a teacher or facilitator for this type of workshop. Some workshops take one day and help teachers or schools with a specific activity. Other workshops may cover a broader topic and last several weeks or months. The workshops may take place at a school, a department of education, or your own professional setting.

Take, for example, a college workshop on environmental education. This workshop could take place over two weeks during the summer, during which teachers are placed in an intensive, but fun, setting where they can learn basic principles of ecology, how to apply these ideas to lesson plans, and how to develop their own school yards for environmental education. Although you may not choose to do a workshop as demanding as this one, the same principles may apply to shorter workshops. If you can help teachers learn about a science topic and connect this topic to hands-on activities or real-world examples that could be used in the classroom, the benefits will be widespread.

Finally, some scientists are in a position to invite a teacher to spend the summer participating in research in their own professional environment. Becoming immersed in research for a 10-week period provides teachers with examples of how science is applied in real life, models of scientific thinking, and practice at effective science communication. Teachers often have trouble translating the lab experiences back into their classroom, however. You could help overcome this by collaborating with the teacher on a lesson plan based on laboratory activities to take back to the classroom. Universities often have programs set up to involve local teachers in laboratories. These programs can be a valuable resource to you on how to best collaborate with a teacher, so it is worth contacting local institutions for possible information. If no such program exists in your area, try to find a mentor who has successfully hosted a local teacher in his or her laboratory in the past. By using the knowledge of other programs or individuals, you will have a greater chance of a successful experience in your own collaboration.


The goal of professional development workshops for teachers is to provide them with information they can use in the classroom. Work with your contact at the school, school district, or state organization to ensure that you will be addressing an issue, problem, or topic that is significant in science and of interest to teachers. Throughout their careers, teachers are continually building on their knowledge, so plan a way to assess their current understanding and abilities. By doing this, you will be able to present a workshop at an appropriate level. While you are planning, keep in mind the impact you hope to have and how you will evaluate your effectiveness.

During the workshop, try to actively involve teachers in an investigation, and provide resources such as scientific literature or technology ideas to enhance the teachers’ background information. Keep in mind, though, that the time teachers have to prepare is limited, so a few excellent resources are more effective than a pile of papers they have to sort through. If you are able to and feel comfortable doing this, provide your contact information to teachers so they can continue to use you as a resource as questions arise later.

Six things to think about

  • The contact person for arranging a workshop may be in the school, the school district, or a state organization. If you do not know the proper person to contact, ask the school’s principal.
  • Ask the organizer about the science curriculum and teachers’ needs, then offer to design a presentation to fit with these.
  • Build the teachers’ understanding of science from their current knowledge.
  • Help the teachers translate your presentation to their students’ level of understanding.
  • Model teaching strategies that are more than, and different from, lecturing.
  • Incorporate your understanding of inquiry and the nature of science into your workshop.

Support Informal Science Education

Some of the most effective places at incorporating inquiry-based education into their goals are the science museum, children’s museum, planetarium, and history museum in your area. Although these informal education settings do a good job of using hands-on activities and other means of exploring science, there is still a role for you in them. Volunteering as a docent may be the first thing that comes to mind, but there are several other ways that you could be involved.

You could participate on the advisory board of one of these museums. If you would prefer to be more involved in the science aspects, you might choose to review the science content of scripts for the science exhibits, planetarium shows, or environ-mental programs. You could even collaborate on the creation and development of a new exhibit at a museum.


When thinking of informal education settings, we hope that the word “fun” comes to mind. The goal in informal education is to provide current, accurate scientific information to the public. It should complement, supplement, and enhance what is learned in the classroom. Whether you are serving as a docent or planning an exhibit, be conscious of how you are going to engage patrons—both adults and children—and what sort of investigations can occur related to your topic.

Collaboration is key when you are involved with informal education. Be sure you have an understanding of the goals of the museum or center and the demographics of the expected visitors. There is an emphasis on creativity in this type of setting, as well as on appealing to a variety of learning styles, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, and cultures, so keep these in mind during your planning. If you are helping design an exhibit, you might also spend time thinking about ways to make the science accessible to patrons with disabilities. Although the museum will have staff members to work on accessibility issues, by collaborating with museum personnel, you can ensure that scientific content remains accurate while all visitors are accommodated.

Six things to think about

  • The point of contact should be the volunteer coordinator for the museum or center. You may also talk to the director of education if you want to help plan an exhibit.
  • Find out about the goals of the museum and how you can support those goals. You may consider offering your skills as a grant writer to assist with proposal development.
  • Be aware of the audiences with whom you interact as well as their under-standing of science.
  • Make connections between experiences in the informal and school settings.
  • Write up a brief description of your role so that you and your contact are clear about the form and function of your involvement.
  • Help identify ways that exhibits could be made accessible to disabled patrons while still showing scientifically accurate information.

Work with Parents and School Boards

Some scientists are more interested in reforming science education at the level of their local school system. This type of change involves scientists working with school districts to restructure and redefine science education. Long-term strategic planning is necessary, and it should be understood that this is a very complex political process. In the case of systemic reform, the goal is to introduce changes that are implemented to become a new "standard operating procedure" within the relevant school system.

At the most basic level, this involvement could be participation in parent-teacher organizations or speaking to the school board about the importance of science education. A larger commitment could be reviewing local science education standards for scientific accuracy or helping evaluate the state framework for science education. Each of these would require working as part of a team.

It may be that the school district in your area is already involved in improving science education. If this is the case, there may be a number of opportunities in which to take part. You might collaborate on writing or adopting science education standards for the area. As a district works to adopt new standards and materials, there is a need for scientists to evaluate textbooks and other resources to ensure that they are accurate, are inquiry-based, and will make a substantial contribution to science education.


Working on systemic reform requires commitment and collaboration. This is not a role for someone who is only interested in spending a few hours to improve science education. This is a political process, so constant communication, a clear position, and friendly pressure may be necessary at times. It will be important to keep in mind the local, state, and federal pressures on the school district. Organization and long-term planning are also important. Business or administrative experiences are often helpful for this type of role.

Becoming educated about science education is also essential. When engaged in systemic reform, scientists need to be able to evaluate current conditions and then develop goals that support a clear vision. From there, it is important to create step-by-step plans for how to reach the goals within the education framework. It is also necessary to determine what the measure of progress will be and to review plans periodically. In addition, think about how you will evaluate the impact of your work at the end. Throughout this process, remember that you are working as part of a team and that collaborating with others is vital to reaching the goals.

Six things to think about

  • To become involved with parent organizations, contact the school to find out whom you should talk with. To help evaluate science education standards, contact the person in your state who oversees science standards.
  • Communicate effectively without excessive scientific or educational terms.
  • Understand the concerns being addressed.
  • Listen for and differentiate among issues that are policies, programs, and classroom practices, and align your response to the appropriate issue.
  • Be insightful about obligations such as union contracts, state assessments, local priorities, and national policies.
  • Practice effective strategic planning by setting clear goals and a stepwise plan to reach those goals.

Select and Implement a New Science Program

As important as teaching methods are, it is also important that teachers have appropriate instructional materials to support their efforts. Some scientists may choose to get involved in science education through helping schools select materials. Like the systemic reform efforts, selection of instructional materials involves a long-term commitment and collaborating with others to create an effective product.

In this role, you might review for scientific accuracy materials that are being developed by others. Much like the review of scientific journal articles, this may be sporadic and time-sensitive. The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) and the National Institutes of Health have developed 16 curriculum supplements covering a variety of topics. Printed copies of these supplements are available for free online at BSCS has also developed a number of textbooks and other materials that focus on different areas of science. Other organizations that are involved in developing innovative new materials are the National Science Resources Center (NSRC), the Education Development Center (EDC), and Lawrence Hall of Science.


Teamwork is very important for this role. To select instructional materials, input is obtained from classroom teachers, administrators, scientists, and others. To assist in this selection process, you should feel comfortable reviewing materials for scientific accuracy, appropriate technology, and authenticity of the scientific process, then providing an evaluation. As with the other roles, think of how you will evaluate your impact once you have completed the process.

Six things to think about

  • Contact the school or the superintendent’s office to ask about the appropriate person with whom to speak. Selecting instructional materials may happen at the school, district, or state level.
  • Identify a set of criteria for analyzing curriculum materials.
  • Help review materials for the accuracy of scientific content and a balance of major concepts and facts.
  • Classify conceptual development and progressions of student learning from the beginning to the end of the textbook.
  • Point out essential connections between the narrative text and laboratory experiences.
  • Be sure there are appropriate technologies associated with the program.

Final Note

The single most important thing you can do before becoming involved is to contact the appropriate person and spend time discussing your role. Make sure that you have common goals and ideas about your involvement. In some cases, there may be some flexibility, while in others, you will need to fit into a curriculum or team already in place. While you may be an expert in a particular field, remember that the school personnel are specialists in education. By working together, you can determine the most effective way to contribute your experience

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