March 2016 | Nuts & Bolts
Guest Speakers Bring Science to Life in an Elementary Classroom
By Dave Mick
My goal as a teacher has been to provide life-changing learning experiences for my students that will lead to successful, productive, healthy, and happy lives. Inviting guest speakers has been one strategy I’ve used to accomplish this goal. Many former students who had been previously unsuccessful in school have told me that their experiences my class, including visits from working scientists, changed their lives and put them on a new course to success. That is why I teach.
Based on my 42 years of experience working in classrooms, kids love science! Thanks in part to a guest speaker program, I believe that most students in my classroom make progress in their academics, and at the same time become highly motivated to continue that success. But to me the most gratifying aspect of all is that students who previously had never liked school and were unsuccessful changed into happy and successful students.
In my opinion, understanding science can make life more meaningful and fun through increased interest and a deeper understanding of the amazing world around us. Many high-paying jobs in high-demand fields are science jobs. For undergraduate degrees, these include engineers, chemists, nurses, and physicists. Scientific graduate degree careers in high demand include physicians, dentists, chemists, pharmacists, veterinarians, physical therapists, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, and various other scientists and professors. Indeed, some of my students have gone on to work with rocket scientists, and even a famous brain surgeon. They have learned that the successful adults who came to speak to my students were once kids like them, who mapped out attainable goals to accomplish great things in their lives.
Filling in gaps
Many elementary curricula today are focused on state testing for proficiency in reading, writing, and math. State tests of proficiency are important, but may rely on what can be easily scored on a computer test. Science provides opportunities for high-interest nonfiction reading and writing, as well as real-life application of math skills. The depth of knowledge that educators hope to develop in students is brought to the fore by carefully-crafted science lessons.
Improving science education in the upper elementary grades requires careful planning, knowledge, and resources. Well-chosen guest speakers can bring invaluable knowledge and resources to the classroom. Decades ago, I realized the importance of opening students up to the possibility of these interesting jobs, and inviting guest speakers into my classroom has helped make this possible.
Young students tend to think that every scientist looks like Bill Nye. I deeply appreciate Mr. Nye’s many contributions to our scientific community, but scientists come in every type of human variety. Career speakers allow students to get to know real scientists, work with genuine scientific apparatus, and learn what scientific jobs are really like — and at the same time, build their interest, knowledge, and skills.
My approach is to create a speaker list that includes life, earth, and physical scientists. Life scientists who have spoken to my class include those mentioned above, and even one of Jane Goodall’s primate research scientists from the Congo. Earth scientists have included NASA researchers, NOAA meteorologists, and geologists. Physical scientists have included physicists, chemists, and engineers of almost every category.
How can elementary teachers find scientists to speak to their class?
- Parents in many communities are a valuable first resource. I have had students’ parents who were scientists come to speak when their child was in my class, and who then later offered to come in every year.
- Universities or government agencies can also provide great contacts, since they often have outreach people.
- I also rely on family and my own physician, dentist, veterinarian, and other science professionals such as those listed previously.
- Often one scientist will offer to help find another to work with your class as well.
Two chemists and a physicist come to mind who deserve special recognition. Dr. Emil Lozanov, from Wayne State University, comes early in the school year and puts on a dazzling chemistry show that helps students visualize chemistry and math principles. Later in the year, he comes back and leads my students in ACS-suggested experiments for elementary and middle schools. Dr. Derek Averill, like several of my speakers, is a former student. He has a chemistry doctorate from Wayne State University, and inspires my current students to follow in his footsteps. Dr. Kapila Castoldi, a physicist from Oakland University, visits four times a year to demonstrate concepts in earth science, electricity and magnetism, light, and heat.
Guest speakers usually visit for about an hour per week. Their impact on students far outweighs the relatively short duration of their visits. Among other positive effects, my chemist visitors have helped make Theodore Gray’s books, The Elements and Molecules, classroom favorites. For the past several years, my students have cheered when I gave them periodic tables. The enthusiasm for all science reading, writing, and experimenting has been phenomenal.
Students respond to my speakers with enthusiasm and careful listening during the presentations. Later, every student sends each speaker a thank-you letter summarizing their new knowledge. I imagine that the students’ heartfelt messages and drawings make these keepsakes for many of my speakers. This program benefits both the students and our guest speakers as they experience science together.