Five steps to science outreach success

Tomorrow I’ll be driving down to London in a van packed with microscopes, giant eggshell models, bird feeding tables, wildlife camera traps and more. Once there, I’ll be meeting a bus-load of children from Rotherham, ready to spend a whole week delivering science to the masses. For the past year, I have been working with Maltby Academy as part of a Royal Society Partnership Grant-funded project, investigating the secret life of birds. This week sees the culmination of all our hard work at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, where we have been invited to present our project alongside the UK’s scientific elite.

I can’t wait to fill you in on how it goes in a future blog post, but for now I want to take the opportunity to reflect on my year of ongoing school-based outreach, and offer five tips for effectively engaging school children in science.

1. Talk to teachers. Before you plan your outreach activity, get in contact with the school and discuss your ideas with the teacher. Forging a strong relationship with teaching staff is crucial for successful school outreach – it will help with organisational logistics, and give you the chance to ask questions to make sure your activity is suitable and relevant.

Try this:

If this is going to be your first time in a classroom environment, ask if you can sit in on a science lesson a couple of weeks beforehand. This will give you the chance to familiarise yourself with the set-up, assess the level of the students, and pick up valuable tips from the teacher on how to maintain attention and engagement.

2. Become familiar with the National Curriculum. It is essential that you pitch your subject matter at the correct level for your target audience. Do your homework. What do students learn at each Key Stage? What basic knowledge will they already have that is relevant to your topic? How can you link your material with the work they are already doing in class, building upon their existing knowledge to broaden their understanding? Never assume knowledge, but also be careful not to under-pitch. Kids get bored easily – you need to challenge them.

Try this:

Ask the class what they already know about your subject, and allow some time for discussion. It is tempting to underestimate a young audience, but they often know a surprising amount! And make sure you leave plenty of time for questions – you will be inundated.

3. Don’t deliver a lecture. I hope this goes without saying, but just in case: The effectiveness of traditional lecturing is debatable even at graduate-level. It certainly doesn’t work for 12-year-olds. You MUST incorporate some degree of interactivity into your outreach. Hands-on practicals or demonstrations with brief introductions and summaries are ideal – they encourage active learning while keeping students continuously engaged. If your work doesn’t lend itself to practical work, be imaginative: How can you involve the children in your subject matter? Can you use them to demonstrate a point? When talking to the students, make sure you ask questions and encourage discussion whenever possible – this is probably the most receptive audience you will ever have.

Try this:

Present a question or problem to the class and ask them to discuss in small groups for five minutes. Give them paper and pencils to jot their ideas down. At the end of the five minutes, ask each group to present their solution to the rest of the class. Encourage the class to critically analyse and challenge each other with questions.

4. Use scientific words (but make sure your audience understands them). Avoid dumbing your language down unnecessarily. A key goal of science outreach should be to introduce children to new ideas and broaden their scientific knowledge outside of the school curriculum. Young children love learning new things! The crucial point is that they must fully understand your terminology. Before using a scientific word in a sentence, ask the class if they know what it means. You will usually get several suggestions. Fine-tune their ideas and ensure everyone understands the meaning before you continue. Use the word(s) repeatedly throughout the session, reinforcing their understanding.

Try this:

When working with young children (e.g. primary level), ask them to repeat new words back to you a few times, to help them learn the pronunciation. For all ages, write scientific terms on the board along with a definition, so everyone can see the spelling and meaning.

5. Don’t be a stranger. Scientists often plan one-off activities, parachuting into a school for an afternoon and then vanishing, never to be seen again. While one-off events can be fun, they miss a trick in terms of long-term widening participation. Children view unfamiliar outsiders with impressive job titles as alien invaders, worlds apart from them and their families/friends. One way to address this is to plan a programme of outreach that allows the class to progress through a longer-term project or investigation, with repeated access to you as a ‘familiar’ scientist. The authentic relationship that develops between you and the students, as a consequence of these ongoing interactions, will go a long way towards breaking down early-forming misconceptions about who scientists are and what they do.

Try this:

Ongoing outreach can be costly. Why not apply for some funding to help cover your time and resources. Lots of funding bodies have money specifically aimed at widening participation and public engagement in science. I managed to get some – so can you:

Royal Society Partnership Grants

Microbiology Society Education and Outreach Grants

British Ecological Society Outreach Grants

Institute of Physics Public Engagement Grant Scheme

Science & Technology Facilities Council Public Engagement Small Awards Scheme

Royal Academy of Engineering Public Engagement Awards

Universities usually have their own sources of internal funding for outreach activities – ask your Widening Participation and Public Engagement teams to provide you with more information.

Want to learn more about the Maltby Academy and University of Sheffield “Secret Life of Birds” project? Watch our video, follow our #summerscience tweets via @HemmingsNicola1 and @MaltbyBirds, or come visit us at the Royal Society between Monday 04 July – Sunday 10 July 2016!