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AAAS Connects Scientists and Students with Classroom Science Days

More than 30 scientists visited Texas schools to share their unique personal journeys with students. | Caitlin Jennings/AAAS

When scientists deliver talks to middle and high school students for AAAS’ Classroom Science Days, everyone learns something, students and scientists alike.

This year’s event, which took place in Texas in February in conjunction with the AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, brought 32 scientists into middle and high school classrooms across Austin, Dallas and Houston reaching more than 5,000 students – a significant jump from the 20 scientists who participated in Boston in 2017.

The goals of the 25-year-old program are multi-faceted, said AAAS Project Director Rebekah Corlew. One aspect of Classroom Science Days is to connect underserved students with practicing scientists. Meeting scientists – and learning about their successes and struggles – can help students see themselves as future scientists, Corlew said.

The participating scientists – whose ranks include undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and professors – represented a diverse array of disciplines, from mechanical engineering to molecular biology to pharmacology. In their talks, the scientists traced their own paths from student to scientist, broke down stereotypes about scientists and shared tidbits from their own research.

Lucrecia Aguilar, a fourth-year undergraduate at Rice University, spoke at a Houston high school about her senior thesis, which is currently in progress and focuses on the effects of the timber logging industry on jaguars in tropical rainforests.

Students were fascinated by the logistics of studying big cats, Aguilar reported, as well as how she got into science and how they can get into science themselves. Her Hispanic heritage was also a point of connection brought up by several students at the majority-Hispanic school she visited.

Classroom Science Days encourages conversation – a question-and-answer period is built into every talk. Sean Edington, a postdoc in physical chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin who visited a local middle school, was impressed by the students’ “insightful and sharp” questions. They were particularly interested in how basic science research could be applied and adapted in medical settings, he said.

One newer facet of Classroom Science Days also drew strong positive responses from students. Raul Ramos, a Ph.D. student at Brandeis University, spoke with several groups of students at an Austin juvenile detention center about his own path from a teenager in and out of juvenile detention to a neuroscience grad student.

“I feel like I can really relate to him,” one student wrote about the experience. “I think what he does now is very interesting and it really motivates me and makes me want to do better.”

Participating in Classroom Science Days is also a positive experience for scientists, providing an opportunity for them to work on their public communication skills.

“This kind of thing is really important,” said Edington. Science can often feel unapproachable for many people, kids and adults alike, he said, so getting scientists into classrooms and communities can put real faces to a sometimes-remote enterprise.

Participating scientists are recruited through a range of avenues, from social media to science communication groups, Corlew said. For Aguilar, who learned about the program from a professor, “I thought it would be a really great way to practice scientific communication and talk about conservation.”

Some of this year’s participating scientists had extensive experience with public outreach such as UT Austin’s director of outreach and demonstration and the hosts of a university science radio show. Corlew provides all participants with materials on best practices for giving TED Talk-style presentations to students and access to videos of successful talks. She also gives personalized coaching over the phone in advance of the event to permit scientists to hone their talks.

For many participants, Classroom Science Days represent their first participation in a public outreach event through rarely their last, Corlew said. She encourages scientists to continue public outreach efforts and has found that after walking them through the challenges of connecting with a teacher and setting up a talk, “they’re much more likely to do it in the future,” she said.

Classroom Science Days has borne out at least one long-term collaboration between teachers and scientists, said Corlew: One participating scientist created a course on science communication at Harvard University in a partnership with the teacher AAAS paired her with.

“We’re hoping the same kind of collaborations come out of Texas,” Corlew said.

[Associated image credit: Rebekah Corlew/AAAS]