Science Education Opportunities - Visiting the Classroom
Visiting the Classroom

Visiting the classroom probably is one of the most common outreach paths; it is quick, and requires little preparation. It potentially also has the lowest impact in the long term for the students (the reason we do this) - the scientist shows up, talks about research for an hour, and then disappears. The students never see the researcher again, and the information often is not integrated into their framework of knowledge. Does this mean don't do it? NO! Make your classroom visit count!

There are three things you want to share when you head into the classroom:
  • science content
  • the process of science
  • the view that scientists are (for the most part) real people

  • You are a valuable asset in the classroom; you are the specialist, you are the visitor, and you are the interesting diversion for the day. Ideally, you want to present information and stimulate thought and discussion with your audience. This can be done with all ages.

    Occasionally, researchers don't want to present the science content because it is "boring" or "too difficult for the audience to understand." Don't buy into this; by not presenting your science, you are adding to the negative public attitudes about science and doing a disservice to everyone involved. Invest the time to make sure the relevance, interest, and excitement of your research comes through!

    Spend some time at the school and with the teacher. Treat the teacher as the professional he/she is - this is common sense, but not always acted upon. Investigate what is happening in classrooms today - it is very different from when you were in school - and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Photo by Betty Trummel, Husmann Elementary in Crystal Lake, Illinois.


    In Preparation:
  • Chances are you are visiting a classroom at the request of a teacher because the class has been studying something in your field of expertise. A few questions for the teacher:
  • What is the age level of the students? You want to avoid presenting material that is beyond the level of the students. This results in frustrated students and presenters. The teacher knows the students; rely on and respect his/her experience when you are preparing.

  • What is the venue/structure of your time with the students (School assembly for 15 minutes? 30 students in a lab for 2 hours?)?

  • What have the students have been studying? What investigations have they undertaken?

  • Are there other teachers who would like you to visit their classrooms? You are on location and have prepared for one presentation, why not maximize your impact? Perhaps you present to one class, but join another purely for questions about what it is like to be a scientist.
  • Get the materials that the students have been using so that you have a good feeling for the level and depth of knowledge.

  • Work with the teacher to define your topic. Determine with the teacher what preparation he/she will do with the class before your visit.

  • Identify a hands-on activity with the teacher (are you getting the idea that the teacher should be involved in all of the planning?) that the students can do while you are there - or for before / after the session. This helps to solidify the information and experiences that you will be sharing.

  • Ask if you need to bring AV equipment; in some schools, a slide projector is hard to find.

  • Find out when you need to arrive and where you need to go. Arrive a little early to make sure everything is set up. This also removes worry from the teacher's day.

  • Bring props - maps (always, always take a map!), posters, videos, resource lists, etc. If you can, leave these at the school. It probably is easier for you to get these resources than the teacher or school (some budgets are very tight).

  • When You Are Presenting to the Class:
  • Plan on no more than 30 minutes of presentation with elementary school students (and only if your information is VERY lively) and 40 with middle and high school. Watch the audience. Keep them involved.

  • Talk a little about yourself and how you got involved in science.

  • Avoid presenting "at" the audience rather than inviting them to parcticipate. Invite them to parcticipate.
  • Break up your presentation; while you want to have science content, you also what to illustrate how the science gets done, why it is important, the different people involved in your project, funny stories from the field, etc.

  • Ask the students questions. The questions should be straight forward (not two or three parts). Challenge them! Be sure to permit time for the students to respond.

  • LEAVE TIME FOR STUDENT QUESTIONS; they will have lots of them! Their questions are just as important as your content delivery.

  • Watch the body language of the students; if they are squirming or falling asleep, wrap up, pick up the pace, move around, challenge their minds with interesting questions - what ever works!

  • Always wrap up with a summary of what you discussed.

  • Ideally, you will move from the presentation into an activity that ties to your work.

  • Resources
    All researchers pondering educational outreach should become familiar with the
    National Science Education Standards ( ). Published by the National Research Council (1996), the Standards provide a systemic vision of science education and education reform. They offer a guide for the concepts students should be tackling at a given age level. The Standards also provide guides for teacher professional development and student assessment and a vision for science education programs. Three underpinnings to the Standards that should make scientists happy:
  • Learning of science should be active
  • Classroom science should reflect "real" science
  • Scientists are actual people
  • A companion reference is Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards ( ), also published by the National Research Council (2000). This document provides a discussion on the nature of inquiry, research supporting inquiry in science education, and a call to action by those involved in science education.

    Photo by Betty Trummel, Husmann Elementary in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

    For ideas about classroom activities:
  • Ask the teacher; he/she may have activities that relate to your work/presentation.

  • Ponder how you might present the material in an undergraduate lab. How might you modify this for the students to whom you will be presenting? Is the activity feasible (i.e., Can the students be successful when attempting it? Will the investigation take a few class periods, a week, a decade? Is the equipment available in the classroom? Are explosions probable - note that this might not be a bad thing?)?

  • For other activity ideas, hit the Web and your professional organizations (e.g., AGU, AGI, WMO, NOAA, USGS, etc.). Often these organizations have educational materials that can be adapted to your classroom needs.

  • A few Web sites with polar activities:

    Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic (TEA; ../) Activities created by TEA teachers.

    Into the Arctic ( A site designed to offer instructional materials and activities for teachers to use in the many contexts of their daily teaching routine. Information and activities are divided into four sections: Climate, Climate Change, El Niņo and the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2.

    Polar Connections ( The National Science Foundation's 1998 National Science & Technology Week focused on polar science. The Web site is available; hardcopy packets are hard to find.

  • New ideas, suggestions for changes, recommendations for additions, etc. always are welcome and can be mailed to:

    There's No Place Like Home....