Works and Days

McGill Lawrence: Making Science Fun for All

This summer with the support of the McGill Lawrence Award, I had the opportunity to work with the science education staff at Portland’s own Oregon Museum of Science and Industry . As a Science Education Intern, it was my job not only to manage volunteers, maintain safety and coordinate with other parts of the museum, but also to act as an educator myself.

At the beginning of my internship, I thought of teaching as a challenge to prove ideas and concepts to my students. When I used this teaching style, a handful of students would walk away being able to recite a few facts I had given them, but overall it did not seem like many visitors had learned something valuable. As I progressed in my internship I learned that effective teaching is not about reciting a monologue, rather creating a dynamic conversation. Every students wants to, and can discover on their own and it is my role as an educator to guide a student to their own understanding.
During my time at OMSI I developed a few tricks to engage students:

1. Watch and listen. If you pay attention, most students will show you how they want to learn. Some students want to talk and do not want to listen to a single word you say. These students, are often better engaged by questions. They want to tell you what they see and what they think! Other students, however, are absorbers. They want to know a little about what they’re looking at before they try to understand how it works. For these quieter students, asking too many questions can feel like a quiz, and end up deterring them from staying to learn. It is my job as an educator to understand how each student will best be engaged, and to adjust my teaching style to fit an individual.

2. Use tangible units. Science especially can seem like a daunting subject to many first time learners. Relatively intuitive ideas can become lost in jargon and specialty units. In order to make a concept more approachable, I learned that I need to focus on ideas and to work up to challenging terms. As part of my internship, a partner and I created a hands-on demonstration to show light’s dispersion over distance and the impact this effect has on solar power. At first, we tried to explain loss of power in terms of Watts, but quickly realized that for most people ‘a Watt’ means very little. We chose to counter this problem by instead using ‘number of houses’ a unit. In this way we were able to convey a concept without distracting visitors with an unfamiliar term.

3. Be flexible while teaching. Often times when a person is confused by a lesson, it’s because they’ve been presented with too much information at once. I need to be confident enough in my own communication skills to be able to break down a concept at different points.

4. It all gets easier with practice and patience. Both teaching and learning can be a frustrating processes at times. Over the course of 8-weeks, interacting with around 100 people per day, my internship allowed me to teach to a diverse audience on a daily basis. Although at the beginning of the summer I struggled to engage different types of learners, the practice I gained at OMSI has made me a more confident and resilient educator.

I would like to thank OMSI and the McGill Lawrence Fellowship for making this summer experience possible! I now understand that teaching is a collaborative process between the student and teacher whereas at the beginning of the summer I thought of teaching as an adversary process: me vs the students. Although I’m not sure what career path I will eventually find myself, the skills and confidence I gained at OMSI will help me be a better communicator, listener and teacher.

I would also like to thank the Center for Life Beyond Reed, my supervisors Kristi Picio and Jen Powers, my fellow interns and all of OMSI’s volunteers I was lucky enough to interact with this summer.

Tags: mcgill lawrence