Catherine Macdonald is the Executive Director of Field School, an interdisciplinary field science training program. She is also a fifth year PhD student at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami, and the Intern Coordinator for the Shark Research and Conservation Program (SRC).
Like a lot of the scientists I know, teaching (outside the classroom) and outreach are a key part of the work I do, and one of the things I love most about my job. This isn’t because scientists accrue big rewards for prioritizing outreach (in the academic tenure system, we can actually pay a pretty high price for spending time on anything other than research/required teaching/publication) but because we want to get people excited about science and care a lot about the subjects we study.
Unfortunately, we aren’t always maximizing our positive impacts on students or citizen scientists who engage with our research—maybe because we aren’t familiar enough with the vast and labyrinthine social science literature on what works in education.* (I wish I had a dollar for every time a natural scientist, in talking to me about education or outreach, has said “if only someone would study this…” without being aware that education researchers have been studying it, in some cases for decades.)
This list is in no way comprehensive, but distills some key points I’ve come across that have influenced the way I teach and interact with students. My thinking here is geared towards programs like those I work with, which take students into the field and involve them in science or outreach in a direct, hands-on way. Although I think it’s great for scientists to go into classrooms and give talks, this advice is only partially applicable to that kind of outreach, and is really geared towards out-of-classroom folks.
Let’s also note that a variety of good potential outcomes have been shown to result from experiential education programs, including increased academic success, improved self-esteem and “self-concept” (i.e., how kids see themselves), increased personal and social responsibility, and better attitudes towards and relationships with adults. There’s no question that those of us who work with students above and beyond what is required or expected of us are doing a good thing. The question becomes: how do we do that good thing better?
* In this list, I am not attempting to differentiate between environmental education, experiential education, service education, scientific outreach, adventure education or any of the other various terms which can be used to describe similar programs. Although there can be important differences in approaches and goals among these categories, it is key elements that the most effective programs have in common that I am interested in.