It?s rather an unfortunate acronym, but PUS, or the 'Public Understanding of Science', is an increasingly important activity for scientists, as you can hardly have failed to notice. Some undoubtedly regard it as a pain, yet another duty for the overworked scientist, but having recently got involved in PUS, or 'Science and Society' as it's recently been renamed, I?ve discovered that explaining your science to the masses can actually be thoroughly rewarding.
As a government grant holder, my funding body requires me to spend a couple of days each year promoting PUS, or SAS. But it?s not just that. Another factor prompted me to spend my valuable time joining the throng of bright young things who are getting 'out there' to enthuse the general public. Standby for a cliché: I feel a bizarre sense of duty to 'give something back'. I really do want to generate a positive image of scientists and maybe encourage a few more people to think about pursuing that most noble of pursuits, a career in science. To my surprise what I got back from the experience was more than just a sense of inner fulfillment and well being. The whole business was useful--really useful--to my research.
But more on that later.
I decided at the outset that my target audience was to be primary school kids. The prospect of facing up to the older variety of schoolchildren I found just too terrifying to contemplate. I acknowledge here and now my utter inferiority to those brave and fearless souls who strive to teach National Curriculum Science to nearly adults bursting with testosterone and estrogen. For all the financial uncertainty we suffer, we researchers have an easy ride by comparison. I speak from personal experience as a regular school prep room and staff room visitor.
As far as I can glean, all teachers everywhere are gagging for enthusiastic support. If you can help them take a bit of the relentless pressure off and simultaneously enable them to tick off another little bit of Key Stage whatever, you're as good as in. This is, of course, on the assumption that you meet a few very basic criteria: good communicator with kids, reliable, and OK to get along with.
Having worked for a while myself as a teacher, I know that good preparation is vital if you want to stand any chance of enabling any real learning. Key to this is a timed plan, if only to give you some clue as to what on earth to do when you are confronted with all those expectant little (and, more unnervingly, not so little) faces.
Be very visual. Lab coats and safety specs are de rigueur (even though I rarely need to use the latter in my lab). The week before I went in, my lot had a nice police constable visit the class. As far as these kids are concerned, you are your uniform.
Give them lots of props to handle and use colourful visual aids. Like a stand-up comic you need to get your audience to appreciate you early. Show hesitance or a lack of preparation and they'll soon lose interest, or worse!
Keep it simple. I started simply with: 'Today we are going to ...' No other preamble was needed or appropriate. Younger children don't want background; they just want to get stuck in, preferably 5 minutes ago. Dumb down as you have never dumbed down before. You might think you are throwing away every last scientific principle you have, but you'll probably 'reach' more minds with your message as a result.
I trust you have a message. A very simple message is important. It will act as a 'hook' to enable the teacher to pull feedback from the children after you've departed. Also, if you want to leave a reusable legacy, make your handouts and worksheets easy to photocopy. That means brief.
The kids in my class offered vastly different responses, based largely on enormous differences in their knowledge of particular areas. In child-speak, I asked one of my little groups for one basic factor every living thing needed to survive. If your model answer to this type of question would be 'energy, as all organisms are subject to the second law of thermodynamics', you need to do two things. Firstly, dumb down a lot more. Secondly, prepare yourself for answers like ?food?. You'll soon learn that 'food' is a correct answer compared to the occasional wild cards you get like 'fish.' Of course, be tactful if you get an answer like 'fish'. For instance, 'Yes, penguins eat fish, but what does the penguin get from eating the fish?' You get the idea.
As I mentioned earlier, this experience gave me a totally new perspective on my research. If you are under the impression that you already have the ability to take a step back and assess your research as a whole, I challenge you to explain it to a class of children. I found that the fresh perspective this gave me really opened my mind. Following my school experience, now when I?m travelling to work, my mind often wanders up absurd, but sometimes enlightening, avenues of inquiry. These days I consider all sorts of possible experimental approaches and drive myself even harder to find the simplest, most elegant solution. If you experience enough disarming 'Why?' questions from young minds, you'll find yourself beginning to reanalyse almost every assumption you ever subconsciously held. Woe to the scientist who never teaches!
If you want to explore the possibility of visiting a school, but don?t know where to start, your Local Education Authority (LEA) should be able to point you in the direction of a school that suits you. I just approached my local primary school. Each one should have a teacher who acts as Science Coordinator. This person is probably your best first contact, if you can't get hold of the head. If you are braver than I am, the equivalent in secondary schools is a Head of Science. You might try to apply for funding for National Science Week ( 7 to 16 March 2003), or like me, you might just do it off the cuff. I'm certainly inspired to try something more ambitious next March! Above all remember that if you put yourself up as a scientist in front of this kind of audience, you are, quite reasonably, considered to be an expert on all things scientific, so be prepared for anything. You may find yourself promoting your profession more than your own research.