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How to turn a science geek into a rock star
by Heidi Kyser | posted April 7, 2014
As U.C. San Diego research scientist Albert Yu Min Lin walked out of a Sandy Searles Miller Academy classroom that had been converted into a science fair space, one fifth-grade girl, who’d just presented her project to Lin, turned to another and whisper-yelled, “He patted my shoulder! Did you see?” The other girl, upon learning from a teacher that Lin would be staying to interact with students some more after lunch, threw her hands in the air and squealed, “This is the best Thursday ever!”
What does it take to get elementary-school kids as excited about a scientist as you would expect them to be about One Direction? Here’s a step-by-step guide, based on what I observed at Sandy Miller on Thursday, March 27:
1. Enlist the help of a relevant institution, such as DRI, which has the means and mission to promote scientific inquiry in the community. DRI named Lin its 2014 Nevada Medalist, an award acknowledging extraordinary contributions in science, and helped the school integrate Lin’s research into its curriculum. Lin’s visit to Sandy Miller coincided with his trip to Las Vegas for the awards dinner.
2. Pick someone like Dr. Lin, a National Geographic explorer whose Indiana Jones-like passion for adventure and discovery make him an appealing figure to kids. When he walked into the multipurpose room filled with first- through fifth-graders that morning, they jumped to their feet and welcomed him with thundering applause. “Who here is a scientist?” he bellowed into a mic, once the kids were seated. Every hand shot into the air.
3. Weave your hero’s work through every lesson. At Sandy Miller, students learned history through the life of Genghis Khan, for whose tomb Lin has been searching for several years; they learned geography and language by studying Khan’s tribe and homeland in Mongolia; they learned science by reading about and watching videos of Lin’s high-tech exploration of the area where he believed the tomb was located.
4. Bring it to life. Sandy Miller students did several hands-on projects building on or replicating Lin’s Genghis Khan work. They staged a mock trial of the 13th-century Asian imperialist, accusing him posthumously of crimes against humanity (he was found guilty); did an archaeological dig on school grounds to see what “artifacts” turned up; learned how to fly a small drone, one example of the technology used in Lin’s quest; and invented tools they believed could help further Lin’s work (one, a crawling robot designed to enter tight spaces and take pictures, was the brainchild of the girl who got so excited about Lin’s praise).
5. Top it all off with a big bash. By the time Lin arrived at Sandy Miller, kids there had been learning about him and Genghis Khan for more than two months. They’d prepared for Lin’s arrival by arranging the science fair, making bulletin-board presentations of the trial and so on. They’d written questions to ask him about his work (Q: “At what age did you start caring about Genghis Khan?” A: “Around your age, actually.”). As teachers tried to usher classes out of the multipurpose room following the assembly, several kids dawdled, still hoping for a chance to get their question in.
“I have been blown away by this school,” Lin told them, “because of your attitude toward science. In all this state, this is the best place I’ve been.”
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