Noelle Swan

Retired Scientists Return to Elementary Classrooms

In Science Education on April 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm

This article was first published in Science Magazine on April 26, 2013: Vol. 340 no. 6131 pp. 446-447.

Donald Rea and Ron McKnight

Donald Rea and Ron McKnight

After earning a Ph.D. in atomic physics and spending nearly 20 years managing a U.S. Department of Energy plasma physics program, Ronald McKnight has returned to the seventh grade.

McKnight is one of 70 retired scientists, engineers, and physicians heading back to the classroom in Maryland and Virginia through the Senior Scientists and Engineers (SSE) volunteer program sponsored by AAAS.

SSE first started sending Ph.D.s like McKnight into public school classrooms in 2005, as an extension of its mission to give senior scientists opportunities to continue contributing to society after retirement.

Retired Jet Propulsion Laboratory chemist and current coordinator of the SSE volunteer program Donald Rea is now encouraging fellow retirees to establish similar programs around the country.

Rea has presented the SSE model, which is based on two earlier programs started in the 1990s, at various science and education conferences, including the International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference (ITSPC) in Boston this February and the American Chemical Society National Meeting in New Orleans this April.”

“Many of our members are concerned about the state of K-12 STEM education, and this is an opportunity for them to make a meaningful contribution,” said Rea. “We are very eager to encourage communities elsewhere around the country to start up their own programs like ours.”

According to Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources (EHR) and former co-chair of the National Science Board Commission on 21st Century Education in STEM, the most efficient way to boost STEM education is to connect teachers and students with real science and real-life scientists.

To this end, retired scientists are “an untapped source of talent and potential,” according to Malcom.

In an effort to foster these relationships, EHR joined forces with the University of California, San Francisco Science & Education Partnership to host 400 teachers and scientists at the ITSPC during the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Program organizers invited Rea to share the success of SSE with teachers and scientists from all over the world. During a panel discussion, Rea stressed that volunteer training is the key to a successful program.

“Generally, what goes on in the classroom is very different from when [volunteers] went to school,” he said.

SSE volunteers attend a daylong training where they learn from experienced volunteers and the school district’s science supervisors, who advise them on matters such as fostering discussion and inquiry rather than lecturing, and leaving discipline to the teacher.

In the classroom, volunteers can answer questions during small group activities, help to troubleshoot failed experiments, and give teachers license to step out from behind the teacher’s edition of their textbooks.

The results are undeniable, Rea told the panel audience. Teachers eagerly sign up to participate year after year, volunteers report a great deal of personal satisfaction, and the students reap the rewards.

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