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National Science Foundation
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National Lab Day: About Transcripts

These are the transcripts of Janice Cuny, a program director at NSF, answering some common questions about National Lab Day.

What is National Lab Day and how did it get started?

National Lab Day was a response to the President’s call to action last spring. He said to the nation's scientists, 'I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what it is your work can mean, what it means to you, to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, to encourage young people to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.'

National Lab Day was modeled after Net Day, which was an event in the 90s when volunteers went into the schools to help wire the schools for the Internet. Analogously, National Lab Day was going to be a day when we all went into the high schools to help improve the quality of their science labs. We were going to clean up the labs, sort out the equipment and supplies, fix things that were broken and see what needed replacing.

But very early in the discussions, someone asked, "Is that what teachers' most need?" And so the discussion changed and the decision was made to change the focus of National Lab Day to be completely teacher-centric. Teachers know best what it is their students need. The decision was also made to make National Lab Day much more inclusive. So, we’re not just talking about science now, we’re talking about all of the STEM disciplines, that is, science, technology engineering and math. And we’re not just talking about high school, but we're talking about all of K-12. And when we say teachers, we mean informal education providers as well, people who work with after school programs, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs. And finally, when we talk about labs, we’re not just talking about what you typically think of, beakers and bugs, and things like that. We’re talking about anywhere in the physical or virtual world where hands-on learning can happen, anywhere that the STEM disciplines can come alive for a child.

National Lab Day is a nationwide initiative to form local communities of support around STEM teachers, and to connect them to STEM-based professionals who will share their expertise and their excitement and their passion for disciplines. It's not really a day, either. It’s about establishing ongoing relationships with teachers, volunteers and STEM-based professionals that will improve education for all of our students. [Return to video page.]

Who's involved in National Lab Day?

National Lab Day is a public-private partnership that's part of the White House Educate to Innovate Initiative. It's funding comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

There are more than 200 professional organizations that have joined with a combined membership of more than six million. Of those organizations, NSTA has played a lead role as has the American Chemical Society.

Federal agencies have also played a role, contributing their education resources and their guidance. The leaders have been NSF, NIH and DOE. They've partnered since the very beginning of National Lab Day. More recently, other agencies have become involved including NASA, NOAA and the EPA. [Return to video page.]

How does National Lab Day work?

At the core of National Lab Day is its website, NationalLabDay.org. It serves to connect teachers to resources and to their local communities of support. Teachers begin by going to the website and registering. It's really easy. It's a very simple form, takes just a couple minutes. Once they've registered, they can post a project, which you can think of as a request. Projects are totally at the discretion of the teacher. They could ask for volunteers to paint their lab or chaperone a field trip or to help with a lesson plan or mentor a student. But what most teachers, 94% of them, ask for is to be connected to a scientist, techie, engineer or mathematician. What do they want to do with these scientists? The requests can be really open-ended. Some of them are simple. Here's one, alternative energy resources. The teacher says that their looking for any classroom projects that are cross-curricular on alternative renewable energy resources. Others are really specific. So there's one posted where the classroom teacher wants to have an experiment that compares LED to fluorescent light on hydroponically grown basil. They're going to grow the basil plants with both – exposing them to both kinds of light and then they're going to measure the vitamin C content of those plants. And what they're looking for is experts or hobbyists who are willing to answer questions about how you grow a hydroponic plant, how do you maintain the system and they're looking for scientists who can help with assay techniques. More common requests are even simpler.

People frequently want help with a science fair, Olympiad or festival. They're looking for people who want to be mentors to the children as they're working on these projects or to be judges at the actual science fair. Another one that I really like is "Skype With a Child," where the teacher just asks to have scientists available to answer questions with someone over Skype. A frequent one is dinner with a scientist where scientists come in and have pizza with the kids and talk about what it means to be a scientist. Our goal is to build long-term ongoing relationships between scientists and teachers and their students. They can start as one-time events like the dinner with a scientist but our hope is that they'll lead to longer term, more significant commitments. [Return to video page.]

How do volunteers or scientists get connected to these projects?

That also happens through the website. You can think of the National Lab Day site as a Match.com or an eHarmony for teachers and STEM professionals. The STEM professionals also register on the site and they list their expertise and their interests, and then they can search for teachers around them in several different ways. They could be proactive and go out and look on the site for matches. And so, to do that, you search the list of projects by state, discipline, keyword, or distance from a ZIP code, or we have an interactive map that you can zoom around and look for projects nearby. Another way is to be more passive and to wait for the National Lab Day site to match the scientist with the teacher. So I've signed up as a scientist, for example, and I frequently get lists of teachers in my area that are looking for my expertise. If I find a project in that list that I want to help, I can contact them through the National Lab Day site. We don't give out anyone's personal email so until both sides of the communication are happy, the communication all goes through the website. Teachers have the same options. They can find STEM professionals and other volunteers by searching the community listings. Again, they could use state or keyword or distance from a ZIP code, or they can wait for the system to periodically send them matches. [Return to video page.]

What kind of volunteers and STEM professionals do we want to get involved?

And the answer to that is all kinds, people who work in industry. You know, kids don't have any idea what a STEM professional does. They don't know why they're learning math or statistics or biology. They don't know what a STEM career might look like and it would be great if they could meet some people and find out. Faculty members at university and colleges are another group that could get involved. Often these people are at the forefront of discovery and it would be great if they could bring some of that excitement into the K-12 classroom. Another group that I'm really excited about is graduate students. Often they're bubbling with enthusiasm and they're the perfect age to inspire kids. Even undergraduates have a lot to offer when working with kids, showing them that cool people, much like themselves, people they admire and can look up to, could also be aspiring to STEM careers. We can use all sorts of volunteers. We can help the teacher with logistics, planning, getting supplies, fundraising, chaperoning field trips, and in many other tasks. [Return to video page.]

I know you said National Lab Day wasn't just a day, but isn't there a day associated with it?

We said that National Lab Day wasn't just a day but is there some day that's associated with it. That's true. National Lab Day isn't a day and it's--but it's an ongoing effort to build relationships between K-12 teachers and the scientific community. Each year, though, we hope to have a culminating day or week where we showcase the work that's been done. The first year, 2010, it'll be the week of May 12th. We want to highlight the great projects that have happened, the great connections that have been made. We hope to use publicity around these events to inspire teachers and volunteers and scientists to get involved and stay involved. The National Lab Day events will be toward the end of the school year in the hopes that new relationships will be formed that can develop over the summer so that the next school year starts off with an even better and bigger set of projects. [Return to video page.]

What else should we know about National Lab Day?

National Lab Day has enormous potential to impact how schools teach science, technology, engineering, and math. Wouldn't it be great if all kids routinely interacted with scientists in their classrooms? Wouldn't it be great if all classrooms had volunteers and professionals who were working with their teachers to bring STEM alive, to show how exciting discovery could be and how important science is in our lives? National Lab Day is just starting, and what we'd like to do is have lots of teachers and STEM professionals getting involved, collaborating new projects and giving us their feedback. We'd like to make National Lab Day something that really works for teachers and for their students but to do that, we need lots of help. Please join the National Science Foundation in supporting National Lab Day. [Return to video page.]