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Retired scientists bring real-world experiences into the classroom

One of the many recommendations of the recent PCAST report to President Obama entitled "Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America's Future\" was that every elementary and secondary school should partner with a professional organization to put the students in contact with real-world scientists and provide them with insights into the outside world, as exemplified by this excerpt from the report:

"High schools, and most of the nation's middle schools, typically have teachers with some STEM expertise, but these teachers often lack meaningful connections to a STEM professional. Such connections can help schools, teachers, and students explore cutting-edge content and real-world applications. Every middle school and high school should have a partner in a STEM field..."

There are many ways to achieve this goal, but one approach is to bring retired scientists into the classroom on a volunteer basis. They can significantly enhance learning and provide motivation for students to pursue scientific careers. These volunteer programs are gaining momentum and are proving that someone who has spent their entire professional life working in a specialized field of science or engineering can make a significant impact on students by demonstrating that STEM subjects are interesting and fun to learn.

One such volunteer program, established in 2005 by AAAS through its affiliate organization, the Senior Scientists and Engineers (SSE), puts retired scientists, engineers, and physicians into the classrooms of public schools in the greater Washington, D.C. area. This is achieved by asking each volunteer to commit to participating for an entire school year, dedicating four to eight hours a week. The program currently has almost 50 active volunteers enhancing the scientific learning experience for many students in a number of elementary, middle, and high schools.

Similar programs have also been established in other parts of the country. For example RE-SEED, part of the Center for STEM Education at Northeastern University, has approximately 80 volunteers assisting K-12 science teachers in the Greater Boston area. Another program called TOPS, operated by the San Joaquin County Office of Education, has almost 50 volunteers working in elementary schools in five counties in Northern California. There are also active volunteer groups in Silicon Valley, California and Maine.

Even though these programs initially involved retirees, they are attracting younger scientists who are working as consultants. Perhaps they thought about teaching, but were hesitant to take the first step. This is an excellent way of discovering if one is suited to working in the classroom. Activities are developed jointly with the teachers they are assigned to and are dependent on the needs of the teacher. 

So if you are at a stage of your life that allows you to volunteer a few hours a week during the school year, please contact the AAAS Education Department at You will be directed to a volunteer group near you. Programs like the ones described here can not only make a huge impact on our children, but will reward the volunteer scientist or engineer many times over.  

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