Marc E. Fusco*, Ellen A. White**
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Science-by-MailTM is a hands-on, experimental science activity program for children in grades 4 - 9 that is designed to be engaging, educational, and fun! Each participating child is matched with a volunteer pen-pal scientist who provides encouragement and guidance. They receive three "challenge packets" throughout the year containing information and materials related to an issue in science or technology. Communication between students and scientists about the packets forms the core of the interactions. A nationwide program developed by the Museum of Science, Boston, Science-by-Mail currently involves about 25,000 children and 2,500 scientists.
Science-By-Mail, science, children, volunteer, social action.
Education is an important form of social action. There are many ways to become involved in educating others, even if you are not a professional teacher. One simple and effective way to play a role educating young people about science and technology is to participate as a volunteer scientist in the Science-by-Mail program. Here we describe the program and provide information about how you can obtain more details. We encourage you to volunteer as a scientist (and you may want to enroll your children!) We also encourage you to consider other ways for you to become involved in this important field of science and technology education - e.g., give a lecture or demonstration at a local school, judge school science fairs, or contribute no-longer-needed hardware and software to schools. A little effort on our parts will go a long way to helping children develop lifelong interests in science!
What is Science-By-Mail?
Science-By-Mail is a hands-on, experimental science activity program for children in grades 4 - 9 that is designed to be engaging, educational, and fun! Each participating child (either as an individual or part of a small group) is matched with a volunteer scientist who serves as a pen pal and mentor. Children are introduced to the wonder and excitement of science in an informative, entertaining, and non-competitive context.
Throughout the year, children and scientists receive three theme-oriented "challenge packets" by mail; each addresses a single topic area in science-, engineering-, or technology-related fields. The packets are developed by the Museum of Science in Boston in conjunction with a rotating board of advisors, museum educators, institutions of higher learning, and other contributing organizations, and they represent a wide range of topics. Some of the offerings have included the science of ice cream, the making of movie special effects, waste management in space, aerodynamics, and communication.
The challenge packets include an instructional guide, which introduces and explains the concepts as well as describes five to seven experiments that encourage the children to explore, hypothesize, and analyze. There are questions in the form of Scientist-to-Scientist memos to accompany many of the experiments; these provide an easy mechanism for children to communicate their results and their observations to their pen pal scientists. Included in the challenge packets are the necessary materials to perform these experiments and the final "Big Challenge." The Big Challenge is a loosely-structured exercise that encourages students to pull together all they've learned from their reading and experiments on the topic. For example, in the packet on the environment, the Big Challenge asked children to design an environmentally conscious town on a specific piece of land that was mapped out for them. The output from the Big Challenge, which may take the form of drawings, reports, videotapes, models, or whatever the children choose, is sent to the scientist for review and comment.
Created by the Museum of Science in Boston in 1988, the program is now administered nationwide by participating local science museums.
What's involved in being a Science-By-Mail scientist?
The Science-By-Mail scientists are an essential component of the program. It is their personal contact with the children and their nonjudgmental encouragement that help make the program unique. Success means not only that the children learn about science, but that they also learn about scientists. As one 10-year old girl wrote when she learned that her pen pal was a 30-year old pregnant biochemist, "Before, when I thought of a scientist, I thought of a little old man with wiry hair and a white lab coat!"
The time commitment is small (estimated to be from 1 to 3 hours per month), and it will vary greatly depending on the type and amount of communication the scientist and children have. In our experience, we've always sent letters to "our kids," but other avenues of communication are encouraged. Phone, electronic mail, fax, and face-to-face meetings are all possibilities! The time commitment is also flexible; scientists are asked to send initial introductory letters to the children at the start of the year and to respond to letters or communication from the children fairly quickly.
You need not worry if you're not an expert at cartography or environmental sciences; each challenge packet sent to the scientist includes suggestions about how to respond to the children's memos and questions. The most important thing is to foster a sense of enthusiasm for science. Scientists are encouraged not to let too much time elapse between correspondence with the children because they may become discouraged and the project may lose momentum. The focus of the scientist's response are with words of encouragement - emphasizing that it's OK to ask questions and it's OK not to have all the answers. Furthermore, remarks should be kept on a positive note, especially when offering criticism, and analogies to real life applications are instructive to the students. More than half the children enroll because of the unique correspondence component of the program and this provides a challenge for the scientist to create an environment in which the children want to write.
Who participates in Science-By-Mail?
Diversity is another strength of the program - involving children from areas such as inner city schools of Boston, Native American children in Montana, and children isolated in the mountains of West Virginia. In the last school year, approximately 25,000 children nationwide participated along with 2,500 scientists from hospitals, universities, and industry. With an average annual growth rate of about 10%, there is a special effort to reach female and minority children and scientists. Especially successful have been outreach efforts to recruit female participants: recent statistics reflect that 47% of the participating students and 52% of the scientists are female. Minority student participation is currently about 14%, with focused marketing and recruiting efforts directed at significantly increasing this enrollment over the next three years. Recruitment of scientists has increased also through affiliations with organizations such as AAAS, National Council of Black Engineers & Scientists, the Association of American Indian Physicians, the Association of Puerto Rican Scientists and Engineers, and the Association for Women in Science.
How can you participate in Science-By-Mail?
If you would like more information about Science-By-Mail or would like to volunteer as a scientist, please contact:
Boston, MA 02114-1099
If you would like additional information about how your child or your child's school can become involved in Science-By-Mail, you may also write to the same address.