Outreach vs. Education

An angle I had hoped to get to in last week’s broader impacts post, but didn’t have time for, was this piece questioning meet-the-scientist programs by Aimee Stern at Science 2.0:

Over the past several years, a growing number of trade associations, foundations and science and engineering companies have started major efforts to get scientists into schools and hopefully inspire students with what they do. The goal, of course, is to get kids interested in pursuing careers in scientific fields, by showing them just how cool science is.

But I wonder – no matter how well meaning, how much do these Meet the Scientist programs really do what they are intended to? It seems to me, there are deep flaws in these valiant efforts, that if addressed could make Meet the Scientist programs far more effective.

She gives a list of problems, from which I will only quote the titles (with one small clarification to make clear that it’s not redundant) to give you an idea (you really should read the full descriptions, though):

They are aimed at kids who’ve already made up their minds about science [that is, high school rather than elementary school].

Most of the scientists who volunteer have limited training in explaining science to kids.

There’s not enough interaction between student and scientist.

The scientists often end up in front of students who already love science.

They are one-shot visits.

Now, it’s true, these are weaknesses of many outreach programs. Her list of problems is itself kind of problematic, though.

For one thing, it’s internally contradictory: if you want scientists to interact with a larger population (all the students in a school, rather than just the ones with an interest in science), there’s necessarily going to be less interaction. If you want a big audience, you’re pretty much going to have to settle for demos done “up on a stage rather than in the middle of a class,” because that’s the only way to scale things up.

And that’s really a special case of the general problem with the list, which is that scientists are a finite resource. I agree, it would be fantastic if you could set up a program where a scientist with good training in dealing with young kids was associated with an entire school for a long period of time, providing lots of individual interaction with students. The problem is, we already have a name for that sort of person: “teacher.”

Science outreach programs using professional scientists are necessarily going to be limited, because professional scientists are, well, professional scientists. They have jobs doing research at universities or labs, and that’s going to be their main priority, because that’s what pays their bills. There are some organizations– science museums, mostly– that pay scientists specifically to do outreach programs, but there aren’t that many of them, and they can’t serve every school.

At some level, what Stern is looking for isn’t really outreach, it’s education. That is, the list of problems she gives are problems that arise from the difference between outreach efforts, which you can operationally define as those programs that produce a “warm fuzzy” reaction to science, and education, which is a longer-term intensive exposure to the subject. The goal of an outreach program is for students to leave saying “Hey, science is pretty cool, maybe I should learn more about it..” and the goal of education is for students to end the year knowing more about science and how it works.

If you want to produce a program that has all the elements Stern lists as desirable, what you need to do is train teachers, not bring in professional scientists to try to do the job of professional teachers. The problem there is one that’s been discussed at length before: teaching in the US is a low-status, high-hassle profession, and a large number of people with the ability to be good science teachers make an entirely rational decision to do something else with their lives. Which means that in the crucial elementary school years, the first exposure many kids have to science comes from people who don’t have much knowledge of or aptitude for science.

I’m all in favor of changing this situation, but it’s not something that’s going to be done by tweaking the outreach programs run by universities, labs, and professional societies. It’s got to involve a real commitment of resources to improving education through raising the standards for and standard of living of teachers.

I would also point out that there’s nothing really wrong with existing meet-the-scientist type programs. They’re not education programs, sure, and they won’t reach everyone, but while nurturing an interest in science among elementary school kids is important for increasing the number of high-schoolers interested in science, it’s also important to keep the students who are already interested in science. And that’s where the meet-the-scientist type of program is really useful. Elementary school kids are too young to need much in the way of concrete information about career options and the like, but high school kids should be starting to think about what they’re going to do with their life. And that’s where talking to real scientists can be most useful– giving students a better idea about what’s possible, and what they would need to do to become scientists themselves.

So, yeah, it would be great to have more scientists doing outreach programs for larger numbers of younger kids, and I absolutely encourage scientists with the skills and inclination to get involved with this sort of thing– offer to do some science demos for your kids’ school, and that sort of thing (if you’re a physicist, join the APS’s shiny new Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public). But at the same time, we should recognize that outreach is necessarily an adjunct to education, and you will never be able to perform the functions of education using the volunteer labor of professional scientists in their spare time.


  1. #1 Ann Martin
    August 9, 2011

    I was certainly one of those students who didn’t “need” outreach as much — I was already interested in science, getting encouragement in school and at home, all of those good things. But there still weren’t (very many) role models for me as far as what a career in science could actually mean, in terms of the day-to-day and that all-important bill-paying aspect. An outreach program can’t be all things to all people, but I certainly agree with you that this kind of program serves certain concrete needs at a stage when those become increasingly important.

  2. #2 marciepooh
    August 10, 2011

    We need to change how we teach teachers (particularly elementary) science and how we teach science to kids. Then the outreach could be directed towards enrichment for kids who have a particular interest in science, being role models, etc.

    I was a bit horrified the other day when my sister (who started 8th grade this morning) didn’t know that insects’ skeletons were on the outside (I said exoskeleton and then had to explain what that was) and they had to be molted occasionally. It made me want to go back to all of her elementary school teachers and the last two science teachers and whap ‘em upside the head.