Retired scientists and engineers are volunteering their time to improve science education in U.S. elementary and secondary schools by joining with teachers to develop and present hands-on experiments and demonstrations. Additional volunteers, including members of SID, are needed to sustain and expand these programs into more school districts.
by Joseph A. Castellano
NUMEROUS STUDIES over the past 20 years have shown a decline in the number of U.S. college graduates seeking careers in science and engineering. In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences published a report concluding that America must vastly improve K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in order to increase the science and engineering talent pool needed to sustain and strengthen the nation's commitment to basic research.1 The U.S. has more than a million senior citizens over 60 years of age with degrees in the STEM fields. Volunteer programs that started in the early 1990s have recruited volunteers from this group to assist teachers in advancing STEM education.2
One of the earliest such programs, RESEED (Retirees Enhancing Science Education through Experiments and Demonstrations), is aimed at stimulating greater interest in science among students at the middle school level (grades 6, 7, and 8). With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Professors Alan Cromer and Christos Zahopoulos of Northeastern University founded RESEED in 1991 to assist middle-school physical-science teachers in the New England region. Eventually, hundreds of volunteer retirees were trained and RESEED programs were replicated at new sites across the country. RESEED was established in the San Francisco Bay Area with the help of Professor Zahopoulos and has since evolved into an independent, not-for-profit organization called RESEED Silicon Valley.3
RESEED's Goals and Objectives
The ultimate goal of RESEED and programs like it is to help students improve their understanding of science concepts and facts as well as the scientific method. The main objective of RESEED Silicon Valley is to increase student proficiency in STEM education at the middle school level. RESEED volunteers (see Fig. 1) provide regular science content support to educators who often experience gaps between their preparation as teachers and the scientific knowledge they need in the classroom. Volunteers are drawn from the large reservoir of retired and other science and technology professionals who have valuable knowledge, experience, time, and an interest in teaching young students.
Fig. 1: RESEED-SV volunteer Howard Cohn demonstrates static electricity.
RESEED Volunteer Activities
Before retirees are matched with a teacher– partner to work with students in actual schools, they take several days of training, typically with other volunteers who have experience in the program. The focus is on examples of experiments and demonstrations that are used as well as pedagogical questions on how children learn. In addition, selected volunteer retirees relate their experiences in the RESEED program to new members.
A new volunteer typically meets with his or her teacher–partner before the beginning of the school year to work out the schedule of days that the volunteer will be available. In addition, the volunteer and teacher discuss the overall plan for the laboratory experiments and demonstrations planned for the first month. This enables the volunteer to prepare the experiments, demonstrations, or lectures that will be given on the day(s) he or she will be working at school. Most volunteers perform experiments and demonstrations one or two days per week in the classroom and spend another day preparing material in advance or doing research to find interesting demonstrations and experiments.
The most important factor for success is a good working relationship between the volunteer and the teacher. Most RESEED volunteers describe a high level of competence and dedication among the middle-school science teachers they work alongside. However, the preparation of lesson plans, teaching, grading test papers, meeting with other faculty members and school administrators as well as keeping abreast of the changes in state standards and the latest scientific developments put tremendous restraints on their time. Thus, many teachers need and welcome the help of volunteers to assist with their classroom activities. Specifically, some of the help provided by RESEED volunteers includes:
• Designing and building experimental set-ups that the students will conduct themselves.
• Presenting live demonstrations of chemical reactions, emission of light, electrical conductivity, magnetism, motion, forces, and other scientific principles. The idea is to show that science can be fun. Some examples of the laboratory procedures used are described on the RESEED-SV Web site.3
• Relating the physical principles that are being taught to real-world experiences.
• Presenting lectures using audio-visual aids (photos, videos, animations, drawings, etc.), typically using a personal computer and compact projector. A list of some of these presentations appears on the RESEED-SV Web site.3
• Meeting with individual students and with groups of two or three to answer their questions and explain the fundamental principles in different ways.
• Gathering supplies, assembling or repairing lab apparatus, setting up equipment, and other tasks that help improve the learning experience.
A major goal of the RESEED program is to have students become knowledgeable about how science applies to most of life's endeavors. Volunteers strive to relate the scientific principles they teach to real-world experiences and to show that the discovery of new concepts, devices, or materials can be exciting and rewarding.
RESEED volunteers genuinely enjoy working with young people and teaching them fundamental scientific principles. The hope is that some of the students will select a scientific or engineering discipline as a career. Many volunteers report that their RESEED experience has been one of the most satisfying and rewarding of their careers.
Benefits to Students and Teachers
Students are the ultimate benefactors of RESEED. They tell evaluators that they are inspired to learn science by the presence of the RESEED volunteers. Teachers say RESEED retirees help them become more prepared to teach science by acting as content resources and by modeling what scientists do and how they think. Surveys show that the teachers also feel inspired, develop more confidence and understanding, and appreciate the highly schooled minds and extra pair of skilled hands. Some teachers say students enthusiastically anticipate the volunteer's visit each week. One teacher reports that state test scores rose from 85 to 95% Proficient and Advanced with only 2% Below Basic as a result of the RESEED volunteer's efforts (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: This RESEED volunteer-built demonstration, called "Hot Dog Circuits," shows parallel and series connections. It is used in conjunction with a lesson on Ohm's Law. The hot dogs are cooked during the experiment (but not eaten).
In addition to RESEED Silicon Valley, there are a number of similar programs that provide meaningful assistance to teachers and students by volunteer scientists and engineers. Another program that was formed in the early 1990s is Teaching Opportunities for Partners in Science (TOPS), which is based in Stockton, CA, and led by the San Joaquin County Office of Education. TOPS targets elementary schools in five northern California counties; its volunteers are expected to commit a few hours each week and participate for the entire school year. Other organizations are located in Fairfax County, VA; Las Cruces, NM; Topsham, ME; Washington, DC; Montgomery County, MD; Boston, MA; Santa Fe NM; and Los Altos, CA. A list of these organizations appears on the American Association for the Advancement of Science Web site.4
More Volunteers Needed
Although approximately 75% of volunteers continue to participate in RESEED Silicon Valley from year to year, the other 25% cannot because of health issues or other circumstances. This creates a continuing need for more volunteers to join the program. Recent retirees from industry, academia, or organizations such as SID are encouraged to consider volunteering for this worthwhile endeavor. RESEED's volunteer coordinators work very hard to place volunteers with partner–teachers in schools near their homes. Many of the retirees have been recognized by their schools, their communities, and even by their town officials. Some retirees find a whole new life in RESEED and spend a significant portion of each week preparing for their day in school.
Anyone who is retired or considering retirement and can volunteer some of his/her time and talent, please visit our Web site3 and complete the form on the CONTACT US tab. RESEED Silicon Valley offers an opportunity to use your technical knowledge and experi-ence to support teachers and work with children.
1"Rising Above The Gathering Storm," National Academy of Sciences (2005).
2D. G. Rea and K. M. Nielsen, "A Volunteer Army for Science," Science 329, 257 (2010).
3More information is available at the RESEED Silicon Valley Web site: http://www.reseed-sv.org.
4A list of senior scientist and engineer programs nationwide is available on the Web site of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: http://www.aaas.org/programs/education/SSE/activities/othervolunteer.shtml/ •