Pathways to Science: Making Meaningful, Authentic Connections with Scientists in the Classroom


To maintain student interest in science it is crucial to keep them involved and keep the science authentic. Let’s look at two programs that give students the opportunity to make meaningful connections with professional scientists. Both are easy to incorporate into existing curriculum or for use in a club or afterschool program.

We’ll start off by taking a close look at a great program called “Letters to a Pre-Scientist”. This program is a collaboration between teachers and scientists that aims to give students a view of science beyond what they may see in their traditional classroom setting.

Students are paired with a scientist pen-pal. Throughout the school year they receive and write letters to this scientist. “Letters to a Pre-Scientist” serves many areas where children do not have many opportunities to see what possibilities are out there in terms of higher education or careers. These personal connections can literally change their lives.

Receiving the letters is not only exciting for the students, but also gives them writing practice. The volunteer scientists hail from all over the United States and the world, which undoubtedly broadens the students’ view of the world. The program served 400 students during the 2014-2015 school year.

The program was the brain-child of Macon Lowman, a Teach for America science teacher with a job placement in rural North Carolina in 2010. She quickly recognized that the majority of her students came from low-income families with little hope that they would go to college, or in some cases even complete high school. She had the brilliant idea of connecting them to scientists to inspire and inform them of the possibilities for future education and careers. With the help of Anna Goldstein, a scientist who organized others to volunteer, they were off and running. “Letters to a Pre-Scientist” was born.

Currently, “Letters to a Pre-Scientist” is run on 100% volunteer power. Supplies are dependent on donation or paid for out-of-pocket by teachers. If you are interested in helping this program grow, donating supplies, or participating yourself as a scientist, teacher or student, you can connect with the program through their website, Facebook page,or on Twitter.

Just imagine the impact of a program like this in all schools, with scientists and even professionals in other fields. Assuring each student makes a connection with someone who can show them an example of a pathway to a lifetime of curiosity, inquiry and an interesting and fulfilling career, now that is what I call a real-world education!

The second program I’d like to feature is the Flame Challenge, a contest for scientists where students are the judges. This is not only an exciting and engaging opportunity for kids because it puts them in the driver’s seat, but also has great opportunities for extensions like teaching writing and communication in the sciences.

The Flame Challenge began when Alan Alda, actor, writer and advocate for clear communication of science, issued a challenge to scientists to explain, in an understandable way, the answer to the question “What is a flame?”. Scientists from across the globe submitted their answers in written and visual form to be judged by 11 year olds.

This first challenge was issued in 2012, and the competition has evolved over the past few years. Now there are separate categories for written and visual submissions and schools can participate in a virtual Worldwide Assembly when it is time to announce the winners. Each year, the question is different. To date the questions have been: What is time? What is color? What is sleep? and What is sound?

When I was in the classroom I participated with my students for the first three years of the Flame Challenge, and students in grades 5 and 6 continue to participate at the school I worked in. What I thought was most important about having students judge the entries is how easily we could extend this activity in the classroom.

This is the perfect precursor to having students present their own findings at a science fair or event at school. They begin to learn what makes for interesting and clear communication. After judging the entries, we would generate a list of why students thought the ones they had chosen were the best. This was always a thoughtful discussion. Students reasoned that giving examples we can all relate to is helpful. They did not want to be spoken down to and they didn’t want too much technical language. A balance of humor was deemed important, but not too much and not too cheesy. They were appalled by grammatical errors and typos.

The students began to understand that scientists are people too. Although they hold information that is valuable to us all, it is okay to question the information that is being handed to you, and acknowledge there might be a better way to communicate with students and people who may not be professional scientists.

Although my students might never meet the scientists who they judged, they did begin to relate to them. They understood that these were people, and the people had personalities just like those they interact with at home and school. During one of the first years we participated, my students fell in love with a scientist named Steve who had submitted a particularly funny and informative video. (He also happened to win the challenge that year!) Over the course of the next year or so, they continued to ask if they could watch Steve again. I loved that he inspired them to be excited about science.

To register to participate in the challenge, visit the Flame Challenge website. Judging happens in the late fall and winners are announced in the spring. 5th and 6th graders may participate (regardless if they are exactly 11 years old or not!) Homeschoolers working on teams can participate too! You can also connect with the Flame Challenge on Facebook and Twitter.

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