Tips for Presenting to K-12 Students
This is a comprehensive list of suggestions for giving guest presentations to students in the K-12 curriculum. The list is long, but some of the suggestions won’t apply to all situations. I felt it was better to provide a fairly thorough suggestion list for conservation biologists to consider rather than opt for brevity simply for brevity’s sake. I have met many scientists who are interested in presenting to K-12 students but are unsure how to go about it. I think the best way to use this list is to do a quick reading scan of it and to select suggestions as seem appropriate and needed.
For further information contact:
Candace J. Lutzow-Felling, firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of Botany and the Ecology,
Evolution and Conservation Biology Program
3190 Maile Way, Room 101
University of Hawaii, Honolulu 96822
+1 (808) 956-3925
Do remember that your current research is built on a foundation of knowledge that can be shared with K-12 students.
Do ask the teacher in advance what his/her learning goals for the students are based on your presentation; this will help guide your preparation.
Do ask the teacher about the interests, learning needs, expected behaviors and abilities of his/her students, including any special needs students.
Do ask the teacher if he/she has plans to teach on this subject before your visit, and if so, what will be covered.
Do inquire in advance about equipment available in the K-12 classroom if you will need any for your presentation.
Do inquire about the number of students you will be presenting to, and bring enough materials for everyone or plan in advance how the materials will be shared (teams of 2 or 4 is OK for many activities).
Do ask the teacher in advance about safety rules for the K-12 classroom in regards to chemical restrictions, organism restrictions, field-trip restrictions, etc.
Do clarify that the teacher will remain in the classroom during your presentation so that she/he can take care of classroom management.
Do solicit advice and ideas from colleagues who have experienced the K-12 classroom.
Do check out K-12 science activities on the web, in books, or at a local natural history/science museum for presentation and hands-on activity ideas.
Do learn about the environment around the school so that you can use information about it in your presentation, when relevant.
Do select one or two key points to share and then provide opportunities for students to explore them and learn more by doing hands-on activities; focus on the quality of understanding rather than the quantity of information presented.
Do plan to present, at most, half of the information you would present in a college classroom or to an adult audience for the same period of time.
Do remember that modeling how we conduct scientific research and how we acquire scientific knowledge is just as important to share as it is to present what we know.
Do expect to learn something through your K-12 experience, perhaps a new perspective on your research or an insight into your presentation style and new ideas to present your research more clearly.
Don’t assume that your research is too complex for K-12 students.
Don’t assume what the K-12 teacher wants you to share.
Don’t assume that students have no prior knowledge of your subject.
Don’t assume the K-12 classroom will have the equipment that you need for your presentation (for example, goggles, disposable gloves, beakers, slide or computer projectors, etc.).
Don’t plan to have a large group of students actually do investigations or activities unless you have enough equipment or materials for everyone to be involved.
Don’t ignore safety rules for the K-12 classroom; these are more stringent than university safety guidelines.
Don’t assume that the teacher will remain in the classroom during your presentation.
Don’t prepare for your K-12 interaction by yourself without input from people who know your audience best.
Don’t plan to quickly and superficially cover many topics or go in depth over too many topics.
Don’t think that sharing current scientific knowledge is all that you can present in a K-12 classroom.
Don’t think you have nothing to learn from K-12 students and teachers.
Do plan at least one hands-on activity to guide students in active scientific inquiry.
Do begin your presentation by finding out what students know (or think they know) about your field-of-study; this will help you connect with the students, may surprise you by what they know, and/or may undercover some misrepresentations that you can address.
Do use a student-focused, interactive presentation method.
Do ask students questions, especially at the beginning of your presentation. This involves them in your presentation and gains their interest.
Do use “open-ended” yet focused questions that encourage students to think analytically and creatively. Some students may not be accustomed to this style of questioning, but they usually enjoy it once they feel “safe” with it.
Do provide a “wait time”, or pause (3 seconds is usually sufficient), for students to contemplate answers to a question and have time to respond.
Do respond positively to unexpected or incorrect answers to your questions. Respond with, “That’s an interesting perspective. Can you explain how you came to that conclusion?” Next, ask if everyone agrees with that answer and solicit other perspectives. Help the students to find the correct response together.
Do provide concrete examples or analogies to illustrate the information you are sharing (Abstract thinking develops with age; for many young students even time is an abstraction; they may understand “now” or at “lunch time” but don’t quite grasp one week later, not to mention millions or billions of years).
Do use some scientific terminology relevant to your field-of-study; Select terms that are important to clarify thinking and improve communication; write terms on the board so students will know how to spell and pronounce them.
Do prepare a terminology chart or list of concepts to leave with the teacher.
Do remember that giving examples and making connections to something students already know will help them understand new terms (and concepts).
Do expect students to ask you pertinent and intelligent questions that may help you in your work and may reveal how the public perceives research.
Do be flexible in how and what you present to students; Prepare more than you need, think of more than one way to explain or demonstrate a principle, and then select from your options based on student responses.
Do speak enthusiastically and loud enough to be heard; the most important thing you can do to engage students is to be excited about your topic.
Do maintain frequent eye contact with the students; this helps keep them engaged.
Do bring relevant scientific tools and equipment for students to try (such as compasses, hand-lenses, dissecting scopes, transect tapes, GPS units, LAI meters, etc.); the more students feel they are engaging in “real science” the more interested they will be.
Do take the students outdoors if possible for a hands-on activity; this will vastly increase student understanding and appreciation of your topic; if you take a field trip to a place that is easily accessible, the teacher can do follow-up trips and encourage more outdoor exploration.
Do be open to questions about science topics other than your own; you may be the only “real” scientist that many students have met and feel they can talk to. Acknowledge students’ off-topic questions and promise to leave time at the end of your presentation to address some of these. Later, if you can, arrange for a colleague who can address these questions to visit the classroom.
Do offer to try to find the answers to questions you don’t know, help students look them up, or suggest resources for them. Use this opportunity to demonstrate that science is not so much about what we know but how we go about finding answers to questions that interest us.
Do provide time for students to ask you questions about your work and how you came to do what you do near the end of the class period; students are often interested in what motivates a scientist.
Do consider remaining over a break or lunch period or even after school to interact with interested students.
Do allow time for students to summarize what you have presented. Do this as an open classroom discussion.
Do try to bring a gift for the classroom (Examples: a poster pertinent to your presentation; field guides; inexpensive observation tools, such as $2.00 hand lenses; a couple of field thermometers, field compasses, or digital pH meters).
Do prepare a list of local / national organizations involved in conservation biology; some students may be interested in becoming members of these societies and in volunteering work.
Do prepare of list of sites the students may wish to visit, depending on the topic of your talk (ex: an ecosystem restoration project, an animal banding station).
Don’t expect students to listen to a lecture for an entire class period (and thus, potentially gain antipathy for your topic).
Don’t jump into your topic (i.e., prepared presentation) immediately without taking the time to get a feel for the knowledge level of the students and to set a personable tone for the session.
Don’t just use a speaker-focused, lecture style presentation method.
Don’t use “closed-ended” questions that require a simple “yes” or “no” answer (such questions tend to be intimidating since they imply only one correct answer and don’t encourage discussion); if you do use close-ended questions, make sure you request explanations as follow-up to get students thinking about why they responded with that answer.
Don’t impatiently provide answers to questions if students don’t respond immediately.
Don’t respond, “No, that’s not correct” when a student answers incorrectly; Avoid being negative--this will discourage student interaction with you.
Don’t overestimate the ability of K-12 students to handle abstractions (especially K-6).
Don’t treat the students condescendingly by avoiding all specific scientific terminology, but don’t use too many technical terms.
Don’t use any technical terms unless you define them in easy-to-understand language and relate it to something that you know they understand.
Don’t assume the students will ask superficial questions, or only simple questions.
Don’t be inflexible in the amount of material you will present and how you will present it.
Don’t use a monotone voice or appear to lack enthusiasm for your own topic.
Don’t turn away from the students too often (to use the chalkboard or face your slides, for example).
Don’t use science equipment specifically designed for the K-12 classroom; students think these tools are “dumbed-down” for them.
Don’t try to lead a trip outdoors if you do not have a sufficient number of adults (about 1 per 10-12 students, depending on the ages of the students) to help facilitate the experience.
Don’t expect teachers to be able to take students to distant sites for follow-up or continued activities, since time and field trip money are often obstacles to these kinds of trips.
Don’t discourage students if they ask you questions that aren’t exactly on topic.
Don’t be afraid to let students know that you don’t know the answer to some questions; this will help students understand that learning is a lifelong process and that even scientists don’t know all the answers.
Don’t just finish your presentation and leave without time for questions from students.
Don’t end your presentation abruptly without summarizing main points.
Don’t fail to leave a reminder for the students of your interaction.
Don’t forget that some students may want to go beyond what you have presented and may want to be involved and take specific actions (ex: What can we do to solve this problem?)
Don’t forget to give the addresses of sites / parks / museums the students may visit.
Do offer to be a resource person for the teacher: make yourself available via e-mail and/or phone to answer follow-up questions, to provide ideas for future presentations and names of colleagues willing to give presentations and/or field sites for class trips. Offer to provide advice on how to develop a lesson based on your field-of-study or on the proper equipment and supplies to purchase, etc. Offer to evaluate a lesson the teacher may have obtained from another source.
Do evaluate your interaction and presentation with K-12 students when you return to your office; think of this as a personal professional development opportunity.
Do talk to the teacher after your presentation to get feedback from him/her on how they felt your presentation went and what you could do next time to make it better.
Don’t ignore the long-term needs of the teacher and the need for follow-up to reinforce and evaluate the concepts you introduced during your visit.
Don’t present and forget about it; keep notes on how the experience went and what you would do the same or change for next time.