Volunteers without science backgrounds can teach science to kids

In 4-H, everyone can help young people learn science. Remember these concepts when recruiting new volunteers to teach science.

Sometimes it can be difficult to find individuals with science backgrounds and specialties to teach science to young people. Organizations like Michigan State University Extension’s Michigan 4-H Youth Development have a lot of young people excited about science and thus there is a need for adult volunteers willing to explore science with them.

Sometimes the word “science” or “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) conjures up perceptions of sophisticated brainy types who wear white lab coats and name their pets after elements found on the periodic table. As a scientist, I would argue that notion is far from truthful - I have never named one of my pets Argon or Cobalt. Regardless, the belief that teaching science to kids is hard, uncomfortable, requires a special background in science, or is “just not for me” is quite common.

While sometimes an individual with specific science knowledge is helpful, as an educator I can say the best teachers of science are individuals that just enjoy teaching and working with kids, regardless of their level of scientific expertise. So if you are trying to recruit new volunteers to work with young people in some area of science, here are few talking points you can use to help those without science degrees feel comfortable teaching and facilitating science.

  • 4-H volunteers do not need to lead discussions; rather they facilitate and guide them. 4-H uses the concept of guided inquiry pedagogy, in which volunteers make young people the focus of their efforts and hands-on learning activities. This approach helps volunteers focus on engaging and encouraging young people in their exploration, rather than a more formal model where the instructor serves as the content expert. As a result, 4-H learning is youth-centered, not instructor-centered. This means that 4-H volunteers do not have to be science subject matter experts, but rather interested in learning right along with youth.
  • 4-H is more about the process of learning than the content being learned. While learning about hurricanes, rockets or animals is important, the more important learning outcome is simply the process. Teaching youth how to ask questions, solve problems, think critically, make good decisions, work in teams and communicate effectively will not only propel them to academic success but also prepare them for life. Many youth we work with do not end up working in science fields, but they all become adults, citizens, teachers, communicators and leaders. Preparing today’s youth to be able to face tomorrow’s challenges is a task worth volunteering for.

Adults who enjoy working with and encouraging children can learn alongside them, and are admired even more for doing so. These talking points and concepts can be helpful in recruiting volunteers that do not have a formal background in science to serve with youth. Learn more about Michigan 4-H Youth development and consider volunteering with your local program.

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