Getting Involved in Educational Outreach Part I: Being a Volunteer


So you think you might want to work in educational outreach? You aren't the only one! Educational outreach is one of the most popular nonresearch careers for scientists and the competition for paying jobs is fierce. How can you increase your chances of landing your dream job? The consensus among outreach professionals interviewed by Next Wave is that the best way to get started is to volunteer. Not only will it will help you beef up your CV, volunteering will also give you a first-hand opportunity to find out whether this field is really for you.

Researchers in Residence (RinR) schemes were set up specifically to send Ph.D. students into schools to promote science, particularly through practical investigations. There are two different programmes, depending on whether you're a physical scientist or a life scientist. Marilyn Brodie runs the RinR scheme which forms part of the Pupil Researcher Initiative, a project funded by EPSRC and PPARC and run by the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University. She explains that student volunteers "attend a day's briefing which prepares them for life in school as it is now." Many volunteers may not be fully aware of the significant changes that schools have gone through since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988.

After orientation and a preliminary visit to the school, RinR volunteers spend a minimum of 24 hours (four school days) in their chosen school. What they do during that time depends on the needs of the class, and not necessarily the expertise of the volunteer. Seamus McLoone is a final year Ph.D. student at Queen's University, Belfast. His project is in the field of control engineering, but he found himself working with a lower sixth biology class. Nonetheless, he was able to help the students by sharing his knowledge of computers to help them research and present their project on genetically modified food.

Cerys Huggins, a second-year Ph.D. student at Reading University, took part in the RinR Biosciences scheme. She returned to her old school, East Hampstead Park School in Bracknell, for a full week of classes. "It's because of one of the teachers there that I'm doing what I'm doing now," she explains. And now she felt it was time to give something back. During her brief stay, she worked with classes right across the spectrum, from 11- to 18-year-olds. One GCSE class was working on enzymes, so she helped them set up a practical and then went around the class "getting them to think about the different things they could change." She also took a lesson about mutagenesis for a sixth form group.

What advice do Cerys and Seamus have for other Ph.D. students? "Do it!" says Cerys, "it's an excellent experience for you, and the kids, and the teachers." But be forewarned that teaching science to children isn't as easy as you might think. Getting the level of communication right is all-important. "Be aware of who you're talking to," says Seamus--and be prepared for some tricky questions, "they'll ask you about anything."

Other opportunities exist for volunteers willing to make a longer-term commitment. Teacher-scientist partnerships (see sidebar) pair scientists at all stages of their career with a local teacher. And Elizabeth Rasekoala, director of the African-Caribbean Network for Science and Technology--an organisation set up in 1995 to help black students achieve qualifications and jobs in science, engineering, and technology--is always looking for volunteers who will make a minimum commitment of one session per week for one school term. "We can never have too many hands to give one-on-one support to less able pupils," she tells Next Wave, and she emphasises that "they don't have to be black students. A role model is someone who is positive" and exudes "enthusiasm, energy, and commitment." The network has established after-school Ishango Science Clubs in Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester, and the London borough of Southwark.

Not interested in the classroom? Think you could field random questions from people all over Britain? Then something like Science Line might be just the place. Science Line is a free public information service that tries to answer questions on all aspects of science. London-based volunteers answer the phones. 70% of the 50,000 questions asked annually are answered "there and then" with help from a big database of FAQs, according to Felicity Ford, whose job is to raise the funding which keeps Science Line and it's associated Web site going. If you're not in London, you can still get involved; 30% of their questions can't be answered straightaway, and those are farmed out to a database of around 1000 "experts" who answer questions by e-mail.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the African-Carribean Network for Science and Technology should write, saying what level of commitment you are able to offer, to: Ishango House, 447 Chester Road, Old Trafford, Manchester M16 9HA.

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