Last week I participated in the Career Day at Sunset High School (in Beaverton) as the guest speaker for career sciences. Needless to say, I was a bit intimidated by high school kids. I am used to adult students and I was very worried about engaging and teaching freshman about my life as a researcher and a science teacher.
The experience was great though! The event organizer had six senior high school students escort me to the classroom and help with various tasks; they made sure the freshmen kids kept quiet, passed my handouts around, helped me set up for my presentation, and moderated the question session! I could not ask for more help!
I had a crowd of sixty students; most of them listened very attentively but a few giggled, doodled or fell asleep… not much I could do about this!
I talked for 40 minutes about my research and teaching careers. I showed lots of pictures and used little text in an effort to keep them interested. The pictures from my Master’s research at Lassen Volcanic National Park (California) were a hit. Geothermal areas with boiling puddles of water and steamy vents are always an eye catcher. I told them about the need for wearing fire-fighter kind-of boots in case you step in the wrong spot and your foot breaks through the geothermal crust into a boiling puddle of water with a pH of 1. They did love that! I also told them about a scary early morning “bear” encounter (although I was never able confirm it was a bear since it was pretty dark, but kids enjoy this a lot more than a possible “deer” encounter!).
On a more serious note, during my talk I did my best to emphasize 1) the diversity of scientific careers, and 2) the high quality of community college education. I focused on these two aspects for a few reasons:
- Diversity of scientific careers: a lot of us have a preconceived idea of what a scientist does, and even looks like… but that idea does not fit most scientists at all (were you thinking lab coat, goggles, messy hair and, hours and hours of work in a lab with lab rats?). Science careers and scientists come in many forms and shapes. You will find scientists in college labs, yes, but you will also find them working in industry, governmental agencies, non for profit organizations, schools, consulting firms, zoos, botanical gardens, science museums… and the will wear anything from a fitted suit to a rugged pair of jeans.
For me, this means science embraces multiple personalities and skill sets; detail oriented people may thrive in molecular biology while outdoor lovers may success at field work. I made sure to get this point across. I really wanted students to understand they should not give up if during their first interactions with science they don’t feel a “love a first sight” emotion. Finding where you fit in the science world is all about trial and error, about understanding and accepting your strengths and limitations, and about moving in the direction your love the most (sometimes you have to stop listening to peers and advisors as their own interest might get in the way!).
- Quality of community college education: I am a strong supporter of community colleges and strongly believe they are the perfect bridge between high school and university. In my two years working at various Portland Community College (PCC) campuses I can say their education standards are as high, if not higher, than those of a four-year university. Moreover, the number of students per class is much smaller and this increases the teacher-student interaction and encourages small group activities and discussions.
I think my “selling” of the community college was very successful! At the end of the talk two students asked me if there are courses they could take at PCC during their senior year at high school and start earning college credits. They were very enthusiastic! The answer is yes, PCC has a high school and college bridging program and high school students can start earning college credits while still attending high school. I have actually taught two very talented high school students in the past and it was a great experience.
I was really excited to participate in the Career Day activities at Sunset High School; I think it is a great idea for students to interact with professionals of the field they are interested in and to discover the day-to-day reality of that field. I salute Sunset High School’s initiative and hope to be part of it in years to come!