How can scientists foster critical thinking and problem solving skills in young children? Research shows that kids as young as eight months generate and test hypotheses about how things work as they play. Unfortunately, these early tendencies are suppressed and impeded when children are restricted to learning in traditional academic environments filled with strictly structured lectures.
In order to nurture and sustain these scientific tendencies, Community Resources for Science (CRS), a science outreach group based in the Bay Area, helps elementary and middle school science teachers incorporate more active-learning into their lessons by facilitating partnerships with local scientists. This scientist volunteer program, called BASIS (Bay Area Scientists in Schools), has more than 550 participants who write lessons and lead demonstrations in elementary and middle school classrooms. In the 2014 – 2015 academic year, BASIS volunteers went to 450 classrooms and reached nearly 10,000 K-6 students.
Teresa Barnett, executive director of CRS, says that the scientist volunteers are a huge part of this program’s success. “If the Next Generation Science Standards are to succeed in really changing the way science and engineering are taught, providing students with real-world connections and experience with the practices of science and engineering, it will take the support of STEM professionals,” she says. Most BASIS volunteers are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from the University of California, Berkeley, and they work in self-formed teams to design lesson plans for the K – 6 age group. CRS guides them through the design process to ensure the classes are engaging and appropriate for this young audience.
Both students and teachers benefit from this approach. “Students thrive and delight in the inspiration of diverse, enthusiastic role models,” says Barnett. She goes on to say that “the vast majority of teachers we work with indicate that having BASIS volunteers in their classrooms helps them to see their students engaged in learning in new ways, motivates them to increase the amount of science they teach, increases their content knowledge, and increases their confidence and motivation.” BASIS has been very successful in this regard, as evidenced by internal and external program evaluations which show that participating students are actively engaged, and demonstrate skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.
A unique facet of the CRS volunteer base is that, while most volunteers are scientists, a scientific background is not actually necessary. Ms. Barnett says that “volunteer teams from industry can include people from across the company, such as in public relations and human resources, who work together with scientists on teams to present lessons. They can share with students about using their own skills (such as communication or graphic design) within a company that is a science-based business, and the importance of being STEM literate even if they are not themselves bench scientists or engineers.”
Unfortunately, CRS does not have enough volunteers to connect scientists with every teacher who needs them, so Barnett is always looking for more help. “[Volunteers] are needed and appreciated!” she says. “Explaining your research to eight-year olds is a significant challenge, but it helps to make STEM professionals better at sharing their research with a broader audience.” More importantly, designing and implementing active learning activities “is an important way to help prepare the future generation of problem-solvers, researchers, leaders, and inventors.”
To learn more about Community Resources for Science, visit the ASBMB Public Outreach website or contact Ms. Barnett [email@example.com] to see how you can get involved.