Incentives needed for science outreach, says Nature Neuroscience

In its June Editorial Encouraging science outreach, Nature Neuroscience (12, 665 ; 2009) responds to US President Obama’s recent call for more scientist involvement in education. Science outreach programs are very welcome, states the Editorial, but to be effective, they must include incentives for teachers and better training for scientist volunteers if true change is to be achieved.

According to statistics released by the US Department of Education at the end of 2008, neither US fourth or eighth graders showed any detectable change in science achievement in 2007 compared to 1995; and only 28% of US high school students are well prepared for college-level biology. Initiatives to bring professional scientists into the classroom have assumed that this involvement will provide better science content and allow students to imbibe an inquiry-based learning process. They should also benefit scientists and science, for example by encouraging public discussion of issues such as use of animals in experiments or ethics of stem-cell research.

Scientists are keen to become more involved in these processes.The US Neuroscience Public Education and Communication Committee surveyed members in 2007, finding that 50% of respondents would be interested in participating in educational outreach. The organization has launched the NERVE virtual encycloportal, maintains a list of scientists interested in high-school involvement, and has announced a wiki initiative aimed at making basic neuroscience information more accessible to educators and pupils. Several universities run outreach programmes with their local schools—volunteering scientific expertise at science fairs, running teacher-training programmes or arranging for scientists to visit classrooms.

The Editorial goes on to point out that many schools and teachers lack the resources to reform their science curricula, and that many scientists do not have the skills to educate and communicate effectively with many students. "Reforming how science is taught in schools, and the amount of it that is taught, will ultimately depend heavily on how many teachers think that scientists can contribute something to the primary and secondary education process and who thus incorporate those contributions into their lessons. Given the current burdens on educators, teachers need to be better rewarded for efforts to implement a more inquiry-based culture in their classrooms. For the most part, such changes will have to come from within the education system……to be truly successful at engaging children, scientists must be better trained to teach and communicate with the public. They also should be rewarded for participating in these efforts; one option would be to give young scientists teaching credits for participating in these outreach efforts. Designing training programs that would help young scientists acquire these skills and rewarding young scientists for sacrificing part of their time at the bench to participate in educational outreach would go a long way toward building effective teacher-scientist partnerships. "

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