Drive by Science is OK Too

The author feeling cheekyLast Monday I finally took my show out on the road. At The Tech Museum I run hands on genetics programs for visitors. On Monday, we took them to Overfelt High School in San Jose.

And the students had a blast*. They got to take home 4X6 glossy pictures of their cheek cells like the one I posted here (that's my handsome cell). They got to use DNA from a crime scene to solve a murder. They got to make bacteria glow like a jellyfish. They got to spool their own DNA. And they got to learn what 1000-2000 bases of their DNA looks like.

For the most part they were genuinely excited and engaged in the activities. They learned about nuclei, dominant and recessive gene versions, why blood cells look different from nerve cells and lots more.

Some educators call this sort of thing "drive-by science." A scientist zooms in, wows the kids and then disappears. These educators feel that this sort of thing has little effect on learning science. I beg to differ.

This experience obviously can't replace classroom learning. But it can reinforce what they've already learned. And it can show them how exciting science really is (even if their textbooks have convinced them otherwise).


Nice theory, but is there any proof this sort of thing works? You betcha.

A new study out by the National Academies shows that this kind of "informal learning" greatly increases the retention time of the things people learn while in that environment. For example, these kids, having seen and taken a picture home with them of their own nuclei, will remember that a nucleus houses DNA longer than if they learn it in a textbook or lecture.

If the study is right, the students will also become more excited about science so they'll pursue it in the future. Especially if the teacher then does follow on activities to reinforce what they learned (which he will).

Hopefully the nine graduate students from Stanford's Department of Genetics and I did our part to get some kids wanting to learn more about science. Maybe we even got a few to imagine themselves as scientists. Not bad for a day's work.

* Quote from the students' teacher:

These are some of the adjectives my students used to describe their experience: "awesome", "cool", "fun"; and they don't use these very lightly when it comes to academic activities. Some of them were wondering if we are "going to do that again." They enjoyed not only the activities, but also the experience of interacting with young graduate students from Stanford. Some experiences that can be a matter of fact for us can be huge for some of these kids and have a dramatic impact on their lives.

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