School visits are a triple-win for academics, schools and society

For researchers, taking science into the community is an opportunity to hone communication skills, increase impact and enthuse children to pursue their own university studies, writes Ben Kennedy. Plus, it’s fun

Ben Kennedy's avatar
8 Jul 2024
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Kids watching demonstration at science centre
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On a football pitch at a local school, 200 kids started chanting: “Blow it up, blow it up, blow it up!” I gave a nod to Chris, the technician helping me out, and he submerged a bottle of liquid nitrogen into a trash can full of water and balls, and 10 seconds later, boom, balls and water were shot 20 metres in the air. This opportunity to demonstrate volcano science with a nitrogen-fuelled explosion brought a huge smile to my face.

I have built my academic career around having fun with science. School visits have been part of my journey of learning to communicate science and have helped me to flourish as an academic, to give back to my community and to make tertiary education more accessible. I am a volcanologist and professor at the University of Canterbury, and have just won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Communication in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

For scientists, bringing their work into schools is a triple-win situation.

Win 1: School visits are great for researchers

Visiting schools to share fun, hands-on learning activities, quizzes or games with children is an incredibly rewarding break from your day-to-day academic job. Schoolchildren, particularly kids aged from three to 12, will be bursting with questions from the moment you enter the classroom, so soak up the enthusiasm. (Those aged 13 to 16 can be more of a challenge.) 

You could start with a local school. Talk to the teachers and find how they are teaching science. What would they like to do if they could? 

This is also a great chance to hone your pedagogy skills as you can learn a lot about communication from watching and listening to schoolteachers in action.

Fun aside, most grant applications demand impact, and school visits demonstrate this. Building communication skills with children can be a powerful weapon in your research arsenal. National and international colleagues now ask me to be on grants based solely on my school-outreach credentials. With a bit of practice and useful research partners in education, you can even research the outreach activity and boost your research profile at the same time.

Children's University students from Christchurch schools with author Ben Kennedy during a school visit
Children's University students from Christchurch schools with author Ben Kennedy during a school visit. Photo courtesy of Ben Kennedy


Win 2: School visits benefit both local schools and wider society

Many schools and teachers lack the resources or confidence to teach certain subjects, which can create a knowledge deficit and increase education inequity. You can help fill these gaps by interacting with teachers’ curriculum and local needs. A good school visit will include the teachers who will participate in your lesson, and gain knowledge and skills in your area of expertise. Ideally, you should leave the school better equipped to teach this material in the future.

Your interactions with the children and the teachers will permeate back into the community. In planning the visit, make sure the kids have a good answer when their parents ask: “What did you learn in school today?” By talking to schools about your research, you are doing your community a service, which I think researchers should feel bound to uphold. It’s impact for society and shows the value of research to our community, government and funding bodies. 

Even if the children you talk with don’t end up at university, they will become voting members of our society, and instilling trust in experts is your contribution to a well-functioning society. Researchers need to show that “experts” are regular people with similar values as the local community and wider society.  

Win 3: School visits create a more equitable pathway to tertiary education

A visit from an expert can change the life trajectory of an individual child, especially if you target schools with traditionally low proportions of students that continue on to university. You may even help instil change in a whole school reputation and profile if you keep returning to schools that need the support and form lasting relationships with students and teachers.

Visiting schools should build bridges to tertiary education as school communities may have few links to university. Consider hosting school classes at your university, as this provides opportunities to demonstrate using research equipment and demystify the university. School visits increase the number of students likely to pursue university, and so support enrolment numbers and stabilise research disciplines, according to data from the Children’s University.

And, finally, bring your university students to schools, so they can learn to communicate better, too. These students can act as near-peer mentors, and school kids and teenagers are much more likely to relate to a university student, especially if they have similar backgrounds to the school students.

Tips for a successful school visit

  • Contact the teacher ahead of the visit to find out what teacher wants their class to learn, and then co-develop your key messages and learning objectives with the teachers.
  • Develop fun interactive exercises, games, quizzes and demonstrations where students can join in and make predictions, tell stories and connect as a person.
  • Avoid talking for more than 10 minutes at a time.
  • Connect with the students from the start of the visit. Find out what they already know, and encourage them to share their knowledge and backgrounds.
  • Talk about why research and tertiary education are important for society, and how all of them can one day do research and study at university if they want to.

Ben Kennedy is a professor of volcanology in the School of Earth and Environment in the Faculty of Science at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He is the recipient of the 2023 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Communication. 

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