Top ten tips for science outreach (in schools)

Article by Lucy Whalley, University of Bath

March 29, 2016, 1:07 p.m.

This article was originally published on the CDT-PV IoP Guest Blog.

Before starting my PhD with CDT-PV I worked as a primary school mathematics teacher. I was lucky to work every day alongside people (i.e. the students) who are enthusiastic, inquisitive and full of energy. Nothing tapped into this more than having visitors come and share what they are interested in.

Witnessing the positive effect of outreach and not wanting to lose touch with mathematics/science communication, I was keen to be involved in developing outreach activities based around photovoltaics. So, just before Christmas, I teamed up with two other members of the Walsh Materials Design group – Dan and Chris – to deliver two workshop sessions at St. Saviour’s School in Bath.

St Saviour’s is a solar school currently going through the process of raising £20,000 in order to put solar cells on their roof. As part of this bid they were keen for us to come in and run some workshops for year 2 students to explore the key concepts of solar and renewable energy in general. For this blog post I thought I’d put together my ‘Top Ten Tips’ for science outreach in (primary) schools, using our solar workshops as an example.

1. Don’t go alone. See if you can work with people in your department, as there may be existing outreach resources and skills. We made use of a bicycle which had already been converted to generate electricity and run speakers.

2. Integrate. Ask the teacher what the students have been studying recently. It may be worth checking the science curriculum, as a themed week or relevant study topic could be used to tie into your topic.

3. Time it right. Two shorter sessions (one hour each) worked really well for us. The students were engaged, and we could adapt our second session after meeting the students and teacher.

4. Be practical. If you are doing practical work you may need one adult with each group. Consider in advance thing like access to email at the school, or even policies around the use of USB sticks; check with the teacher to avoid last minute panics.

5. Tell your story. We showed photos of the university and talked about the far flung places that science has taken our group members. The students were more at ease after finding out a little bit about the strange visitors wearing white coats, plus it shows the exciting places science can take you.

6. Keep it active. Children learn by doing. Keep talks concise and short. Set tasks with clear steps and re-group at regular intervals. Check with the teacher for how best to arrange grouping so as to reduce confusion and wasted time when moving between the board and activities.

7. Assess for learning. Ask the children to recap what they have learnt – this could be done in pairs if they are shy. After the sessions contact the teacher to ask how they think it went. Talk about the scientific process. Think about which skills you could teach the children – we hinged our sessions around the scientific process: predict, test and explain.

9. Use props. We created a buzz in the classroom by wearing white coats and silly glasses. It’s silly, but it seems to work.

10. Share your outreach. Ask if you can take photos of the event and collect quotes from the children. Blog it!

If you’d like a little bit more information about the solar schools concept please see this great video made by one of the Year 2 parents, which also includes footage from our workshops.

It’s corny, but these children could be our future scientists and so I think it’s important to help them understand the challenges our society faces, whilst empowering them so that they feel that they could be the ones to make change. As PhD students, enthusiastic about our own work, we are in the perfect position to do this.