GeoEd: Get ‘em when they’re young

There’s a lot of emphasis on outreach to older students, i.e. those who are contemplating further education and may well wish to pursue a career in science, but shouldn’t we also target our efforts at the younger generation? Sam Illingworth highlights the importance of outreach to primary school kids – and of catching them at an age when they’re most likely to be inspired…

From my experiences working in schools across the UK, there has been a rather biased drive to deliver educational outreach to students that are either coming to the end of their compulsory education, or who are about to decide what to study at university.

However, to me this appears to be a somewhat backward approach. Yes, it is important to target students with stimulating outreach activities that inspire them to study a geosciences-related degree at university, but many of these students will already have had to make some selections regarding the speciality of their education, even at this early age.

In the UK, at the age of 16, students are asked to choose (usually) between 3 and 5 subjects to study for a further two years, a decision that will have major implications for their university education. In reality, for many students the choice of pursuing a broad scientific education occurred even earlier, with many UK students given the option at 14 of replacing some of their science lessons with those from other subjects.

Because of this early selective branching, it can often be very difficult to change the mindset of a teenager that has already taken the decision to less actively pursue the sciences in their studies. Whilst this model is not in place across the whole of Europe, it is certainly true that there is more of a focus on depth rather than breadth as a student’s education progresses. Furthermore, research suggests that for many pupils the dissatisfaction with science sets in at the end of their primary school (10-11) years.

The brain is far more impressionable in earlier life than in maturity, and with increasing age, the ability to learn and to be influenced declines. Peak impressionability is between the ages of zero and three, and it begins to taper off significantly after the age of eight. Therefore, in order to encourage as many students as possible to actively pursue a broad scientific education it is important to instil a fascination and desire to do science at an early age.

The impressionable youth. (Credit: Sharon  Peters)

The impressionable youth. (Credit: Sharon Peters)

Targeting students between the ages of 5 and 11 requires a slightly different approach to working with teenagers, but many of the core principals remain the same, with the students needing to be both educated and engaged.

In educating the students, it is very important not to work with a deficit model, an idea that focuses on the students’ lack of knowledge, rather than a student-centeredness approach based around the understanding of the learner and the learning process. In my opinion the use of a deficit approach to outreach is akin to the feeling you get when a car mechanic sighs at your understanding of spark plugs; it is not a very positive experience to be told that you do not know something!

Instead, if we use an approach that focuses on what the students have already learnt in class and on concepts and items that they understand and are familiar with, then this can reinforce the work we are doing, and will leave the students feeling empowered and therefore far more willing to contribute. For example, in a recent activity that I ran for a group of seven-year old pupils I wanted to teach them about how to conduct a scientific experiment. Knowing that the notion of a fair test was a part of the curriculum I developed an activity that saw the students squashing bananas, weighing them before and after, and recording their results in a scientific manner. The students were then able to build on their knowledge base of what constituted a fair test to learn about the scientific process, using equipment (bananas and weighing scales) that they were familiar with.

Outreach activities that build on a previous knowledge base can be far more engaging than those built around a deficit model. (Credit: Louise Bousfield)

Outreach activities that build on a previous knowledge base can be far more engaging than those built around a deficit model. (Credit: Louise Bousfield)

In order to engage with younger students it is advisable to make the outreach activity as practical and interactive as possible. A recent report from the UK’s Wellcome Trust found (not surprisingly) that young people enjoy practical activities in which they can actively get involved rather than just watch. That being said, from personal experience there is still room for traditional assembly-style presentations, providing that the students are kept involved and that there are lots of opportunities for questions!

I recently gave a school assembly to around 150 students, between the ages of five and eleven on the subject of ‘Who is a Scientist?’ The assembly lasted for about an hour, including twenty-five minutes of open-ended questions, and could have gone on for much longer; in fact, I only had to stop taking questions so that the students were able to leave school on time!

School assemblies are a great opportunity to engage with a large number of students. (Credit: Sam Illingworth)

School assemblies are a great opportunity to engage with a large number of students. (Credit: Sam Illingworth)

Working with younger children can be a liberating and exhilarating experience. They are yet to develop the cynicism and awkwardness that can sometimes make engaging with older children so energy zapping. They can also surprise you in the most wonderful ways; in the assembly that I mentioned above one softly spoken student asked me ‘Why, if human[s] evolved from monkeys are there still monkeys?’

Carefully developed outreach activities can educate and engage younger students, thereby instilling a love of science at this early and impressionable age. Such activities can have a large influence on the degree to which they decide to sustain their scientific educations, which will ultimately have a profound effect on them far beyond the confines of the classroom.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University


Clemence, M., N. Gilby, J. Shah, J. Swiecicka, and D. Warren: Wellcome Trust Monitor: wave 2 tracking public views on science, biomedical research and science education report, Wellcome Trust, 2014

Osborne, J., & Dillon, J.: Science education in Europe: Critical reflections. London: The Nuffield Foundation, 2008

UNICEF: The Importance of Early Childhood Development, 12 October 2008. Accessed 5 June 2014.

Ziman, J.: Public understanding of science, Science, Technology & Human Values, 16(1), 99-105, 1991

GeoEd: Demonstrating geoscience in the classroom

Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) aims to get teachers engaged with real research – and real researchers – through intensive three-day workshops held at the General Assembly. The workshops not only help teachers get to grips with up-to-date science, but also put them in the centre of an energetic scientific conference, even offering teachers the chance to present posters, alongside other scientists, on the work they undertake in their classrooms. Each year, the workshops take on a different theme, this year the focus was on Our Changing Climate. 

Practical demonstrations are an integral part of the workshops, providing teachers with real take-home resources and inspiration for their classes. They also provide the teachers and speakers with an opportunity to bond over some fun activities. Jane Robb describes the demos from EGU 2014 so you can take them to the classroom too

The carbon cycle dice game by Francesca Ugolini, Institute of Biometeorology-CNR Firenze, Italy

The teachers were split into four groups of 10 and each was assigned a ‘sphere’: the atmosphere, the biosphere, the lithosphere and the hydrosphere. The members of each group represented carbon atoms within each of the spheres. For example, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, carbon in shells of marine animals in the hydrosphere, carbon in plants in the biosphere and carbon in rocks in the lithosphere. Then, each person was given a die that they had to roll in turn and follow the instructions that it provided.

Carbon from the lithosphere has to go to the atmosphere! The di from the carbon cycle game. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Carbon from the lithosphere has to go to the atmosphere! The die from the carbon cycle game. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Fast-forward half an hour, and things were way out of balance: the lithosphere was depleted of carbon atoms and the atmosphere group had doubled in size. So, what does this represent? Each of the four spheres exchanges carbon in various cycles: respiration, burial, weathering and extraction by humans. The carbon cycle game aims to mimic the climate change driven by human influence on the planet – particularly the burning of fossil fuels for energy. In this way, lots of carbon was being extracted from the lithosphere, far more than naturally would occur through weathering, and this was being released to the atmosphere. Each dice roll determined the fate of carbon atoms in the different spheres, with proportionally more faces of the die adding carbon to the atmosphere through burning of fossil fuels.

The teachers at EGU 2014 playing the carbon cycle game. (Credit: Jane Robb)

The teachers at EGU 2014 playing the carbon cycle game. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Ocean acidification in the classroom by Sally Dengg from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel, Germany

Ocean acidification is often thought of as the ‘other CO2 problem’, but at the GEOMAR research institute, this is one of their key research areas. In this session, Sally demonstrated some simple ways that the concept of ocean acidification can be taught to kids in the classroom, using little more than everyday school chemistry equipment, water, ice, candles, fizzy tablets and food colouring.

Understanding carbon dioxide and how it diffuses into the oceans. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Understanding carbon dioxide and how it diffuses into the oceans. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Using simple experiments, Sally showed us first how the process of diffusion carries CO2 from the atmosphere into the oceans and how cold waters are more efficient at taking up CO2, forming CO2 sinks at the bottom of the oceans. In another experiment, we were able to illustrate using water coloured with food colouring and some ice, how the cold surface waters in high latitudes sink as they cool, transporting the CO2-saturated waters to the deep. However, with increased warming of the Earth, freshwater icecaps at the poles, leading to layers of freshwater on top of saltwater. This layering means that the oceans are less able to convect CO2-rich waters to the deep. In time this leads to warmer surface waters that are less able to sink and mix with the deep water below. The surface water also saturates with gases including CO2 and oxygen (and the lack of mixing means the deep waters receive less oxygen).

Getting to grips with how carbon dioxide is taken up by warm and cold water. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Getting to grips with how carbon dioxide is taken up by warm and cold water. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Additional activities can also be found on the CarboSchools website, so please take a look and use them in class yourself!

By Jane Robb, Project Assistant, University College London

GeoEd: We need to talk about evaluation

Say hello to Sam Illingworth, Young Scientist Representative, Science Communication Lecturer and education enthusiast! Sam will be making regular contributions to the GeoEd series, sharing his experience of science outreach with geoscientists, educators and the public at large. In his GeoEd debut Sam reports on the importance of evaluating outreach activities, one of the key areas covered in EGU 2014’s short course on school outreach…

Hello, and welcome to the latest blog post from GeoEd, the EGU’s series about education and outreach in the geosciences. My name is Sam Illingworth, and I will be making a regular appearance on this GeoLog feature.

I aim to help develop this series as a useful tool for educators, practitioners, and scientists working in geoscience. As a lecture in science communication, I intend to draw on my experiences of developing and delivering educational activities to produce some useful and informative advice to old hands and newcomers alike, and sincerely hope that this series can become a focus point for stimulating debate regarding geosciences in the education.

Successfully completing a school outreach activity is only the beginning. (Credit: Louise Bousfield)

Successfully completing a school outreach activity is only the beginning. (Credit: Louise Bousfield)

Forgive me if I appear reckless in my first post on this site listener, but we really do need to talk about evaluation.

How many times have you delivered a successful outreach activity and then packed up your stuff and returned to the lab/office/tea room with your ears still ringing from the delicate sound of children’s laughter and your heart still racing from the close escape with the school’s fire alarm system, only to swiftly move on to the next experiment/computer model/chocolate digestive that you had on your agenda?

We are at times all serially guilty of failing to properly evaluate our school outreach activities, but in doing so we are wasting a great opportunity to not only further develop and strengthen our own events, but also to assist in the overall understanding and development of educational engagement.

As an absolute minimum we should be recording the metrics (number of students, age range, name of school, etc.) for the outreach activities in which we are involved, both for our own records and also for those of our universities and any external funding bodies. A short personal summary of the activity is also good practice, as by recording your own thoughts on what did and did not work you are able to ensure that the next execution of the activity is an even greater success. Even if it was a one-off event, such summaries can still help you in developing and delivering future activities.

In order to really assess the relative successes of the outreach activity, though, it is necessary to get feedback from the students, educators and demonstrators. Obtaining this feedback needn’t be overly complicated, and I would recommend using the excellent SurveyMonkey to construct straightforward questionnaires (What did you like? What would you do differently? What surprised you?) that can be filled out by all three parties immediately following the activity. By analysing the results from these surveys (again SurveyMonkey can be used to do this) you can really start to get a better picture of what does and does not work in your outreach activity, and how it can be improved for future events.

However, is my opinion that we need to go one stage further than this, and that in order to truly evaluate our school outreach activities, we need to start applying the ‘scientific process’. The scientific process can be represented pictorially by Ouroboros (the snake that eats itself): you start with a hypothesis, you then test that hypothesis, and based on the outcomes of the test you either accept the original hypothesis or adjust it and continue once more with the cycle.

Ouroboros: The snake that eats itself (Credit: Theodoros Pelecanos)

Ouroboros: the snake that eats itself (Credit: Theodoros Pelecanos)

For school outreach activities the hypothesis would be that “this activity raises the awareness of the student’s knowledge in subject X.” However, it is impossible to test if this hypothesis can be accepted or not without first assessing the base level of knowledge that the students have about X. Therefore, the evaluation process really needs to take place before you even set foot in the classroom.

Assessing base knowledge needn’t be overcomplicated; if for example the outreach activity aimed to improve the students’ knowledge of global warming, then their initial familiarity with the subject could be assessed by asking them: 1) What is global warming? 2) What causes global warming? 3) What can be done to reduce global warming? These same questions can then be asked after the outreach activity, and the hypothesis can either be accepted or rejected based on the comparison of the students’ pre- and post-understanding of the subject.

This particular approach to assessing the prior and posterior level of understanding can, for some students, be overly reminiscent of ‘assessment’, resulting in negative implications for the outreach activity. In such cases it might be better to adopt a more informal ‘focus group’ approach, where the students are encouraged to chat about subject X both before and after the activity, with their comments and remarks recorded and later analysed by the facilitators.

Focus groups can be a very useful and informal way of assessing students’ learning outcomes. (Credit: Sam Kalubowila)

Focus groups can be a very useful and informal way of assessing students’ learning outcomes. (Credit: Sam Kalubowila)

School outreach activities are a wondrous thing; they help in the communication of science to society, and without wishing to sound too much like a politician they can ultimately help to inspire a future generation of scientists. However, as research scientists we live and work in an industry in which we are ultimately judged by our publication record. It can therefore help to justify the legitimacy of any school outreach activity to the powers that be (your line manager, head of school, or external funding body) if you are able to point them in the direction of peer-reviewed publications that have been produced as a result of your outreach activities. However, in order to publish in pedagogical journals such as Physics Education, it is essential that the any analysis and conclusions are defendable, and in order to do that it is necessary to approach school outreach activities using the scientific process outlined above.

By constructing a solid evaluation plan for any educational outreach activities during the planning process, we can ensure that we actually learn from our relative successes and failures. In order to do this though, we must first accept that these activities do not end the second we leave the classroom and that in many ways that is when they truly begin.

Further evaluation resources can be found here at this excellent webpage, created by the UK’s National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE).

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

Need a helping hand planning your outreach activity? Take a look at this handy checklist, developed in preparation for the EGU 2014 short course on school outreach. You can also find the full presentation from the workshop here.