Outreach and grad school

I’m in the midst of my first semester of graduate school, and (made apparent by my lack of blogging) have been insanely busy. I’m learning lots and making time for fun, but suffice it to say that I have never worked this hard.

One of the things I was really excited about when coming to graduate school was the prospect of starting to do some outreach.  So I signed on to help coordinate a physics demo day for local girl scout troops.  My duties were relatively low-key compared to the main organizers, but there were moments when I felt like I wanted to kick myself for volunteering my time to something that wasn’t a necessity when I had so many other “higher priority” obligations.  I wondered if it was worth adding another pull to my time when I was already overwhelmed, however worthy outreach might be.

The event was today.  And it was totally worth it.  The station I participated in had the girls line up as a human solar system, first trying to figure out the relative distances themselves, and then with the actual distances.  I think it created a really nice visual for understanding the distance scales of the solar system, and they seemed to enjoy it.  Afterwards, we just answered whatever questions they had about astronomy.  We got lots of expected questions about black holes, aliens, and Pluto, but also some great questions about how planets form (we don’t really know..) and how big/small galaxies can be (we also don’t have a good answer for that..).  It was great to see how interested they were in astronomy/physics.  And it was really rewarding to not only be able to answer their questions,  but to tell them “Astronomers are studying that right now! Maybe one day you can figure it out!”

Anyway, I had a blast, the girls all seemed to get a lot out of it, and even though it took up some precious hours, I’m really glad I did it (and definitely plan to do more).

Also, when we asked the room full of ~30 girls how many wanted to be scientists, a good chunk raised their hands.  Very encouraging :)

Galaxy Zoo blog Part 1: Grade school science has a bad image

Karen Masters of Galaxy Zoo started the “She’s an Astronomer” blog in 2009.  She interviewed female astronomers and asked them the same questions so that we would get an “overview of what lots of different (female) astronomers thought about the same issues”.  She recently wrote a post addressing why she thought the “She’s an Astronomer” series was necessary.  In this post she compiled all the answers to the question “What (if any) do you think the main barriers are to women in astronomy?”.  Masters interviewed 15 women total – 7 were professional astronomers involved in galaxy zoo, and 8 were galaxy zoo volunteers.

Masters found that there was a wide range of answers, but that there were trends with the “level of formal education/career progression in the field”.  The longer someone had worked in astronomy, the more problems they thought there to be.  In this post I’ll discuss the answers given by the 8 Galaxy Zoo volunteers, who focus in on the issue of poor presentation of science to grade school students.

The Galaxy Zoo volunteers found that science is often seen as a boring/hard subject.  One homeschooled interviewee said, regarding science, that “because it’s taught so badly at school, it shuts down any interest”.  A former teacher agreed and said that poor science education is more of a barrier than gender.  Some Galaxy Zoo volunteers expressed the feeling that the stereotype of science being a boring subject would improve with time.

One interviewee Gemma noted that “if people could see more clearly at a young age how many cool things you can do with maths and science and the sense of achievement you get from problem solving, that they aren’t dry subjects that you learn by rote and that there are still many interesting things to discover, I’m sure a lot more people would be interested, be they women or men.”

I agree – I think that science needs to be taught in a way that is more engaging to students.  My science classes were most enjoyable when I got to high school and could do exciting experiments.  This report recently published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress paints a dismal picture of K-12 science education – fewer than half of all students perform at or above the proficient level in science at all three grades tested (4th, 8th, and 12th).  This article discusses some of the challenges faced by grade school science teachers.  Many teachers don’t have the resources they need to do classroom experiments that will pique their students interest. A lot of students also come in with a negative view of science, believing that they won’t be good at it.  Elementary school students are also focusing in on math and English, in order to meet No Child Left Behind standards.  As a result, science is left in the dark.  And if elementary school science is being taught poorly, kids won’t be as interested once they get to middle school.  One other problem is that administrators often ask teachers to teach subjects they aren’t familiar with.  One former NASA biologist found herself teaching earth science, and had to take a workshop on it at her own expense.

A significant effort needs to go into teaching science better in schools, and changing the stereotype that science is boring and hard.  Students should find themselves engaged by science.  This is why projects such as Galaxy Zoo are so important.  For those of you unfamiliar with Galaxy Zoo, it provides the general public with an opportunity to participate in real scientific research.  Galaxy Zoo has you classify images of galaxies based on their shapes, for human galaxy classifications are much more accurate than quantitative classification methods.  You can read some of the scientific accomplishments here: The Story So Far.  Projects like this, that have you contribute real science, do a fantastic job at getting people interested, whether they are grade school students or not.

How do you think grade school science can be taught more effectively?  I’d love to hear some thoughts!

In my next post, I’ll be discussing some of the answers of the “She’s an Astronomer” interviewees regarding gender discrimination.