School outreach

I attended my first activity as a science engagement tourist. It was a meeting on school outreach. Present were members of various Faculties from the university and teachers from schools.  I learnt a lot from this meeting – first it is possible to start and end a meeting on time from 9:15 to 10:40, finished 5 minutes early, something that is extremely rare back at home in Malawi where everyone feels they must have their say on each and every agenda item!

Outreach policies

Although an office exists that coordinates outreach, there is no specific mechanism or systems in place to effectively manage schools outreach. No university guidelines or policies exist making it difficult for example to contact the appropriate person responsible for outreach in the various departments if such a person even exists. And likewise not all schools have a liaison officer. In a brief presentation by a business liaison officer from one of the schools, the benefits of schools having a dedicated person (although part time) were outlined. Since her recruitment, students have participated in several activities with academic institutions and businesses. It will be interesting to evaluate the impact of this on student’s attitudes, knowledge, and career choice. Someone present at the meeting reported that they were about to embark on a longitudinal study looking at the outcomes of long term outreach programs on students’ knowledge and attitudes.

The law on working with children

The United Kingdom has stringent laws on working with children. Any volunteer or member of staff who intends to work with children must have a Criminal Records Bureau check. Such a system protects children from offenders and abuse. I doubt if such a policy exists in Malawi but I can see the potential benefits especially with the increasing number of cases of teachers using their authority to take advantage of female pupils.

Short of funds

The global economic crisis has left no institutions untouched. Cut backs are eminent, decisions need to made on what is core and what is extra and sadly public engagement and schools outreach may not be considered  vital. The defence would be to present the specific positive outcomes and significant impact outreach has on increasing knowledge, attitudes, and understanding as well as to show increasing number of students pursuing degrees in science. In the long term science is beneficial to economic development. A more immediate strategy could be to charge a small fee for children to attend outreach events.

The cost of excursions

Outreach from a school’s point of view in the UK is a costly exercise. For any trip, transportation costs, cover for the teacher going on the excursion, and the change in normal teaching for the students remaining must all be factored in. To counter this, academics can be invited to the school but students are excited to get away from school and visit the places where the work actually gets done. There are however cost savings to schools when scientists visit with the added potential of having several local schools congregate at one location so that more students can be reached in one visit. Alternatively outreach projects can offer a lot more programs during mid term breaks as this transfers the expense to the parents and not the school.

How do you engage the disengaged?

During the meeting an important question was asked “How do you engage the disengaged?” How do you connect with schools that do not have a dedicated outreach member of staff, that have no funds for science engagement, that have overworked and underpaid teachers, and poor science facilities.  This is a question that I can extend to Malawi because although the context is different the problem is the same. Does anyone out there have any answers?

Food for thought

Science institutions should have a  framework, policy, or guideline for school outreach. Included in this should be points of contact for persons responsible for outreach.

Investigate what the law in Malawi is on working with children.

To overcome the costs associated with an excursion, invite scientists to the school and have several schools meet in one venue so that more students can be reached.

With budget cuts looming, to raise funds charge a very small fee to cover event expenses.

Offer a lot of activities during the mid term breaks so that the expense will be covered by the parent and not the school.

Evaluation is important to show the benefits of outreach.