Wednesday, February 13, 2013

School Visits

This past Friday, I crawled out of my academic ivory tower, dusted off my social skills, and paid a visit to the 5th and 6th grade science classes as Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago to chat about being a scientist. I was treated like a celebrity. I can’t wait to go back!

I should probably mention that my sister teaches at Chavez, and I was such an object of wonder because the students adore my sister. Still, it was a great ego boost, considering that I had brought trash as my object lesson. We used the trash to talk about how long it would take different items to decay and where the trash would end up if it were washed into Chicago’s stormwater system. Regardless, what kind of mean visitor brings in old (clean) milk jugs and gives them to kids?

Well folks, I’m a scientist, and I did. But mostly I told the students about being a scientist. I shared pictures with them and told them about the fieldwork in 8-degree weather in the middle-of-nowhere that earned me my MS. They wanted to know if I was ever scared, and, also, did the water bugs bite my hands? And furthermore, why did my sister have yellow hair and I had brown? Try explaining genetics to an audience that hasn’t studied Punnett Squares, yet. Actually, I dare you, do try it.

While I taught a lesson, the science teachers didn’t need my help to do their jobs—what they really wanted was to introduce these students to a real, live scientist. I was there to tell these students about all the options and adventures a career in science had given me and to suggest that science could open doors for them, too.

We like to joke that scientists and engineers don’t have good social skills, and that’s why we’re terrible at outreach. But visiting this school didn’t take a lot of skill. It took a smile, one pretty lame story, and a desire to answer questions on my part, and the kids did the rest. What do you think: do you like this model of outreach, or would you rather participate in a more formal setting, like a science expo?