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Reaching the Next Generation with Science Outreach

The first of a multi-part series examining topics in Science Outreach & Education.

By Dirk Fabian

Taking the Time to Learn

For most physical science graduate students, teaching and science outreach are things we learn about as we go along our research path. It is a rare student in electrical engineering or physics that sneaks in an education class with the goal of learning about teaching. Learning to teach by doing it is the norm. After all, that's how our professors and advisors did it, and change comes very slowly to the academy.

Some schools hold teaching institutes to educate new graduate students. In others, teaching assistants take matters into their own hands and run their own peer-mentoring programs. Outreach to pre-college students, since it is often an informal pursuit, gets even less attention in scientific circles. Yet, of all the possible things one could learn in grad school, better teaching methods, whether you are planning a career involving teaching or not, have the potential to positively influence the development of more people than anything else.

It was not until my third year in grad school that I learned that there was an interesting breed of researchers that not only studied how students learned science, but actually made verifiable predictions on how to improve the learning process. It was a complete surprise to me that there is quite a lot of experiment-based literature on ways to teach science to groups of young people. Just like in the lab, some teaching methods are demonstrably better than others. Students attain a more integrated level of understanding of scientific principles than they previously did, score higher on assessments, and retain the information longer after the instruction.

Current conclusions and best practices from research into effective science teaching can be summarized roughly along the following lines of thought. The links in the text provide a starting point for further reading.

  1. Different learning styles among students (ex. visual, auditory, tactile learners) require a variety of teaching styles in order to reach the greatest number of students.
  2. Student pre-conceptions of world must be addressed. Students do not arrive as blank-slates but continually re-construct their world view based on new input. This is done through dialog with their teachers and peers.
  3. Use and vary classroom assessment techniques to sample student learning at the beginning, middle, and end of a lesson.
  4. Peer-learning and communication is crucial - students must be able to articulate concepts using their own language with their peers.
  5. Learning must be relevant to students' lives.
  6. Problem-based learning produces better results than rote memorization.
  7. Teach less content but with a more in-depth view of the meaningful problems.

 In the past, improving science education usually meant moving to more "hands-on" teaching methods, but research over the last 15 years has advanced this idea much further. "Hands-on" is the basic vehicle, but it must be directed by the conclusions and principles discussed above to be truly effective.