By John F. Finerty, Ph.D.
"Crowd control" plus knowing your audience, are absolute necessities when presenting science to an audience of elementary, middle or high school students. Particularly if you design a scientific experiment to be performed before a very live audience, i.e. a classroom of students. My words of wisdom are gained from eight years of presentations before various age groups of students.
I have worked the most with first graders at Brookhaven Elementary School, located close to NIH, in Bethesda, MD. I ventured into elementary school science in Montgomery County, Maryland as a charter member of the NIH Science Alliance group. The plan was to spend 45 minutes with each class of 27 students just after lunch. I quickly learned that I was not experienced in dealing with first graders! The first three times I performed simple demonstrations, I left Brookhaven exhausted, wondering "where do the teachers get their stamina?!" I also learned is there is a considerable difference between talking to 200 immunologists sitting in their chairs at a meeting and 25 first graders sitting on the floor in front of you. If the immunologists don't like what your saying - they fall asleep. If the first graders don't like what you're doing - a riot develops! You must also remember that just as laboratory experiments don't always work, so too in the classroom your experiment may not go as planned. I have often modified experiments as I've exited one classroom and entered another particularly with elementary students, the most critical of audiences. The teachers always give me feedback when I ask for it. I hope you're up for "constructive criticism" if you decide to venture into the schools of the little ones!
My discussions of new aspects of science has been essentially with high school students. Favorite subjects have included basic immunology and infectious diseases, such as AIDS and cancer. The composition of these classes varies widely and one must strive to balance "entertainment" with knowledge. If the topic is cancer immunology, I present some new finding obtained from journal articles. The presentation is preceded by a brief introduction into the science of immunology and cancer. Then I get into the subject of the journal article, and after discussing the results, I ask the students for their interpretation. Usually a couple of students deduce the same interpretation as did the authors of the article. There have been instances when some of the students have thought of additional experiments! There are many bright, creative high school students who have the potential for careers in biomedical science. What we as scientists have to do is go to these schools, talk to the students and encourage them to pursue their inclinations toward biomedical research. You may even find a volunteer for your laboratory and that could be the start of a young person's biomedical career.
Students, particularly high school, need science teachers who are confident and knowledgeable about science. The Internet has enabled students to be surprisingly informed as to new scientific developments and teachers must meet that level of knowledge. For example, AIDS is a topic in the secular press that captures students' attention. How do you bring reality and theory together in a classroom? At one gathering of high school science teachers I devised a classroom demonstration that shows how sexually transmitted diseases can be easily spread. One unsuspecting teacher was given a "contaminated" specimen as the specimens were distributed to all the teachers. At the end of the demonstration, they were amazed how rapidly the "infection" spread! It was a demonstration that the teachers wanted take into the classroom.
Being a judge at Math-Science Fairs at Brookhaven Elementary School has also been a rewarding experience. Eight years ago, out of 300 students, there were approximately 40 projects entered. This year there were over 90 projects, even five kindergarten projects, and the science projects were quite sophisticated compared with eight years ago. Obviously this reflects the increased awareness, during those eight years, of both parents and students, of the joys in doing experiments. The use of computers and "surfing the web" are certainly contributing factors.
As a bench scientist, you can have a tremendous impact by going into the classroom. Students can see that scientists are real people, that experiments work (usually), and be exposed to a variety of experiments. But most important, they begin to understand the joys of laboratory research, the wonders of exploration, and the awe of making a discovery. Think about it.