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What do you do if you’re a scientist and want to volunteer in a classroom?

How do you find the right place to go and right kind of activity that suites your talents?

One of my commenters asked about this a few weeks ago. With the new school year up and running, it seems like a good time to tackle this question.

What kinds of volunteer activities do scientists do?
Your effort can be big or small. Small efforts can involve speaking in a classroom, mentoring students via ea-mail, judging science fair projects, or assisting with homework questions. Larger efforts can entail doing or assisting with classroom experiments. One of the scientists at Immunex (Janis Wignall) used to go on her own to visit classrooms, armed with gloves, pipettors, and electrophoresis equipment.

It does help to know a little of the lingo. Usually, volunteering gets classified under the broad category known as “outreach.” Looking for opportunities then, means looking under “outeach.”

I’ve been involved with several outreach groups now for over a decade. It seems to me, the most effective and sustainable kinds of outreach happen when scientists work with some kind of outreach organization who can pair the scientists with the projects, teachers or students. That way the organization can find new volunteers and keep projects going if volunteers burn out.

I’m volunteering, now, to play matchmaker and post some of this information for scientists who might be interested in helping out. So, if you are involved in science, technology, engineering, or math outreach and you want local scientists to know you exist, feel free to write to me and I will post information about your program and your web site.


  1. #1 Stacy Baker
    September 21, 2008

    Thank you for this post! As a high school biology teacher I would love to have a scientist volunteer to help my students.

    I would be excited to see scientists contribute to student-run science blogs! They could comment to student posts or submit their own post and converse with students. A conversation could continue with a video conference or an actual visit to the school. My students work so hard on their blog and would benefit greatly from input from scientists.


  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    September 21, 2008

    Hey thanks! I think that’s a great way for scientists to help out, and I commend you for doing this with your students! I’ll write about it in my next post to make sure more people know.

  3. #3 Rob Pyatt
    September 22, 2008

    The American Society of Human Genetics operates a list where teachers can make connections with scientists in genetics that are local to their geographic area. The goal being that the scientists can visit the classrooms and support whatever the instructor is doing related to genetics.

    I love this kind of outreach! But honestly I can’t say I know any scientists including myself who have ever been contacted. I suspect that the issue is still getting the word out so teachers and instructors know such a resource exists.

  4. #4 Mark Samuels
    September 22, 2008

    In Canada a similar initiative is ongoing via Let’s Talk Science (www.letstalkscience.ca). They contacted me via the CIHR (equivalent to NIH in the States).

  5. #5 Karen Arden
    September 22, 2008

    The elementary school my children attend has a Science Committee that works to support science at the school. I wanted to let others know that there are many different kinds of things you can do. We have organized Family Science Nights with more than a dozen stations each having a couple of hands-on fun science activities for families to do together. We also run a Shoebox Science program that works through the library. Kids can check out small kits in either a bag or a box and do simple science experiments at home. The committee is responsible for restocking the kits and making new kits. I wrote a small grant (4-5 pages – much easier than writing an R01!) to a local biotech company’s foundation and received money to purchase new microscopes for the science teacher. Other members of the committee have written grants to Loews and other organizations to get support for the school garden. We now have a greenhouse, a sunshade, raised planters and field microscopes – all obtained with outside money. The San Diego Astronomy Association has a free outreach program and we arrange for them to come to the school with their telescopes for Astronomy night. This is one of the most popular events at the school. We have also participated in classroom activities in order to lend a hand to teachers. I have put together activities on “germs” for first graders and on the “heart and circulation” for second graders. I’m no expert on elementary education but there’s lots of information out there on the internet to pull from. There are lots of ways to volunteer your time and excitement you see in the kids faces is an amazing reward. The teachers are very appreciative too.

  6. #6 Sandra Porter
    September 23, 2008

    Thanks Rob, Mark, and Karen: those are wonderful ideas and I’ll see about highlighting them in future posts.

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