Getting kids excited about science can be challenging, but adding a novel element to the classroom can make it happen. For some schools, the novelty comes from using docents, volunteers who lead students through what is often a hands-on learning experience.
Science docent programs are as varied as the schools that use them, but most rely on a common factor: parents. Trish Keller has been the volunteer science docent coordinator at Folsom Hills Elementary School (K–6) in Folsom, California, for a decade.
One or two docents are needed per class at every grade level each year, explains Keller. Most volunteers sign up through the PTA, but Keller also provides notes for teachers to send home with students if no one volunteers for a particular class. About a month into the school year, Keller holds an evening meeting with volunteers, mostly parents and grandparents.
Docents lead six to eight classes per year. At the end of the year, volunteers provide feedback on the program, any need for additional supplies, and other suggestions for improvement.
“They [students] get a lot of hands-on [experiences] they wouldn’t necessarily get. It reiterates what the classroom teachers do,” Keller says. “It’s exciting for them to have their parents in there doing something academic. Learning science out of a book is fine and dandy, but when you have the opportunity to get the lab equipment in the kids’ hands…”
Recruiting volunteers for the docent program has been a continuing problem. Keller says most parents aren’t aware of how much, or little, hands-on learning goes on in the classroom. In addition, serving as a docent has an intimidation factor. “It’s a hard sell sometimes because a lot of grown-ups don’t know science and would be more comfortable with teaching art or helping with reading,” she says.
The Folsom Hills program asks docents to devote 3–4 hours per trimester to the program. This includes a half-hour to read the provided lesson plan and gather supplies from the storeroom and an hour for the lesson, two or three times each trimester.
The Parent Teacher Club at the Franklin School in Loomis, California, funds the school’s science docent program. According to Cheryl McNabb, the program’s parent coordinator, they were fortunate the K–8 school had a lab reserved for seventh and eighth graders. “With some fast talking, [I] got access to it for the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades as well,” she says. “That’s huge, to have a space to do stuff, and store your stuff.”
McNabb conducts five labs per grade during the school year. At the beginning of the year, she has parents register to be a science docent volunteer, committing to just two hours, five times a year.
“I try to stay true to the curriculum for the first three or four labs, [and] do what I want for the last one,” McNabb says. “I try to make sure that whatever we’re learning is first of all, fun, and has broader implications you can use later on.”
Although no formal evaluation of the program occurs, McNabb believes it is successful. “When I get to them in the eighth grade and show them something I’ve been showing them since the fourth grade, I’ve heard them say, ‘Oh, now I get it.’”
The docent program helps answer a need for hands on-science, maintains McNabb. “What we found with our school, since we’re K–8, [is that] a lot of teachers weren’t comfortable teaching science. We had this lab with equipment still wrapped in tissue paper. Science docents give teachers who don’t have the time, the comfort level, or wherewithal to set up a lab the chance to give their kids a lab experience,” she concludes.
Today’s Docents, Tomorrow’s Teachers
Project Tomorrow, a national education nonprofit group based in Irvine, California, took a different approach when it launched a science docent program in 1997 to spark elementary school students’ interest in science and encourage high school students toward teaching careers.
High school juniors and seniors participate in the docent program as part of their class schedule. They learn basic pedagogy, child development milestones, and presentation skills, as well as how to develop inquiry-based science lessons to meet state standards. The students then use what they have learned to develop lessons and conduct a class.
“The kids are divided in teams based on” teamwork, leadership, organization, and presentation abilities, says Julie Evans, Project Tomorrow’s chief executive officer. The teams research the science standards and develop and conduct a lesson. Students examine what worked and what didn’t before revising the lesson and presenting it again.
“In many cases, the students are learning the science for the first time, and some are considering science as a career,” she says. “The mentoring interaction between the high school and elementary school students is uniquely valuable for the elementary students, particularly the males.” She notes that many of the younger students had few positive male role models since most of the older boys and young men from the children’s neighborhoods often have joined gangs. “Now they have male role models talking about going to college. There’s a real excitement for learning.”
Project Tomorrow began with just one “high school cluster”—a high school and the elementary school(s) where students act as docents. The program has been growing exponentially.
“Two years ago, we had one high school cluster,” Evans says. “This year, seven clusters and 14 [clusters] for 2008–09.” The seven high schools participating this year are providing science docents to 13 elementary schools. As word has spread through teacher and principal networks, schools in Chicago and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area have expressed interest in the program.
Evans adds Project Tomorrow provides benefits at three levels: to the elementary school students, elementary school teachers, and high school students. Younger students are more interested in science and more likely to take science classes later; their teachers have the opportunity to learn new, hands-on methods from the high school students. While serving as mentors to the docents, the teachers also have a chance to observe how their own students learn, something that doesn’t often happen at that level, according to Evans. For the high school students, the program is a way to “test drive” teaching as a career and improve their own science knowledge and skills.
The effort to encourage high school students to pursue teaching careers appears to be succeeding. Over 10 years, 47% of participating high school students have said they were going on to teaching careers, Evans says.
She credits a formalized curriculum with helping boost interest. Project Tomorrow provides a comprehensive, full-year curriculum for the high school class, which has been certified as a college class by California State University and allows high school students to earn elective college credit. They offer an online portal for students and teachers with a resource directory and a wiki-style directory of student-developed lessons; a stipend for lesson supplies; and project management, coordination, and scheduling support for the schools. They also provide mentoring for the high school students from industry experts and university professors; scholarship programs for students interested in teaching careers; and professional development for the high school teachers.
Evans says anecdotal evidence shows that a higher percentage of student docents who say they plan to teach actually do so. She has heard from alumni how the program gave them an edge when they entered college. “They all felt advanced compared to their peers who hadn’t had that experience,” citing better understanding of factors such as classroom management and resource availability. Clearly though, not all of the docents become teachers. “We have had kids start saying, ‘I want to teach, I want to teach,’ but at the end of the year, they say, ‘This is not for me.’ It’s better to find that out as a high school senior than a college senior or after two years of teaching.”