The Model Rules for Professional Conduct for attorneys urge all lawyers to give at least 50 hours of free legal advice to underserved communities or non-for-profit organizations and many states require pro bono work to remain in good standing with the bar. I believe scientists should give back to the community too.
Sharing Creates Understanding
As scientists, we are not regulated and licensed like attorneys; we do not provide a professional service that can impact life and liberty. However, we do have specialized, discipline-specific training centered on critical thinking and logical analysis. We are experts in a field that is increasingly politicized and misunderstood.
There is a critical disconnect between science and the average person. If we do not step in to fill that gap who will? There are many ways we can work to increase science literacy, encourage people to study science, and help primary and secondary teachers country-wide do their jobs.
Be a Classroom Resource
One of the best places to share scientific expertise is local classrooms.
Partner with a local teacher to serve as a subject matter expert on a topic. Imagine how inspiring it would be for grade school students to see an industry professional take the time to come to class and talk about science. Bonus: bring some hands on exercises or examples of your work that emphasize inquiry based learning to get kids actually doing science. If kids hear the passion and excitement in your voice when you explain your work how can they not help but be inspired?
Be a guest speaker. Guest speaking is even more important if you are a scientist who is also a female or person of color. Girls and minority students will identify with you directly as a role model; you even may be the first person that they have seen who looks like them doing science. This will show them that they too can access and participate.
Not sure who to contact in your neighborhood to help a local teacher? Nepris connects STEM professionals to science classes all over the country. Teachers access the site, outline a lesson plan, and send out a query looking for a particular subject matter expert. Professionals can search through the requests and identify those that meet their qualifications and experiences.
Provide Professional Development
Another effective way to support science education is to offer to host professional development seminars for teachers. Teachers are mandated to have continuing education every year. They are interested in what you do every day and would enjoy a session detailing your research. They will likely immediately begin thinking of ways to incorporate what you are saying directly into their science classes and lesson plans.
Providing professional development for teachers who teach our youth is a humbling and inspiring experience. In August, I was a part of a team of faculty that spent a day of professional development with Jefferson County, W. Va. middle school science teachers. The agenda included time for the teachers to form small groups to share ideas to develop active and inquiry based learning exercises for their students. Ideas were collated and added to a wiki that mapped exercises we created or found directly to the state science standards. Several members of our team also contributed lectures based on their backgrounds and expertise.
As a community of scientists, we may not be obligated to give back but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give back. Not unlike biological magnification, the cumulative impact of these small services will have a profound effect on students and teachers alike.
Francesca A. Catalano received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a medical technology degree from Loyola University Chicago in 1992 and 1993 respectively. She was awarded her Ph.D. in molecular biology with an emphasis in microbial genetics from Loyola University Chicago in 2001. Her dissertation was on the abilities of a microbe called Bacillus subtilis to build an alternative cell type called a spore. She then matriculated at DePaul College of Law where she received a J.D. in 2004. In her career Dr. Catalano has taught courses in both science and law but most enjoys teaching general education science courses to non-majors. She incorporates as much educational technology and social media into her classes as possible. Dr. Catalano is committed to science outreach; most notably with her work supporting and encouraging girls and women to STEM fields with her group wSTEM. On a personal note, she is an avid science fiction and college football fan and currently lives in central New Jersey. Dr. Catalano is a professor and Director of Faculty in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math at American Public University.