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How To Have A Great School Science Night

(A Guest Post By Kitty)

I’ve worked school science nights from all angles, and have seen them go all kinds of ways. I chaired the science night at my children’s elementary for 6 years, I worked for a STEM camp that was called to bring activities to school science nights, and now I work for a STEM university that has a group of students and faculty who volunteer to do outreach with us.

Here is some advice for planning a science night at your school.

Start planning EARLY. Contact the participants you’d like to have as soon as possible.

Each year, I asked the principal and PTA president at our school to tell me in June the exact date they wanted our event the following February, and I immediately emailed everyone I wanted to have with me and asked if we could be put on their calendar.

Even larger STEM organizations don’t have unlimited resources in their outreach offices. If you’re planning an event in late winter or early spring and you’re making your request only a month or two before, your request is much more likely to be turned down.  This is especially true around Earth Week, the busiest seasons for science nights. Believe me – they want to go to every school, but they just can’t.

Consider the time of year and the time of day.

If you’d like to have telescopes, which are always a huge hit, the sky needs to be dark. Check on an astronomy website to see what time astronomical twilight is for the date you have selected, and make sure that the event gives you at least 45 minutes to an hour after that time.

Elementary kids tend to need to leave by 8 pm, for bedtime, so the later in the spring you have your event, the fewer little ones will get a peek at the night sky.

You can also look up to see which planets are overhead during that time of night on potential dates, and schedule your date accordingly. Seeing the moons of Saturn or Jupiter are always exciting for kids.

Know that weather may wreck your plans for stargazing, and have a backup activity in case the telescopes are only going to be giving you closeups of clouds!

Explore your local resources for exhibitors.

I live in Pasadena, CA, which is about as resource-rich as one can get, science-wise. Locally we have Caltech, JPL, Planetary Society, Carnegie Observatories, and many other groups clustered within a few miles, but you don’t need to be close to any of these to have access to great STEM resources. Outreach efforts can often be found at any of the following:

  • Your local parks and rec or nature center may have a nature education program they can bring to your school
  • High school or middle school students from a science, programming, or robotics class or club may be willing to come and do hands-on. We have a STEM magnet middle school whose students come every year and help the participants do dissections, and we have a high school competitive robotics club come and let the kids try out their robots.
  • Audubon Society chapters
  • Boy and Girl Scouts troops
  • Local universities – either their STEM-related departments or their school of education – you may find teacher trainees who want experience doing STEM activities with children.
  • Local non-profits working in public health or for environmental causes
  • Local businesses that have STEM-related jobs will sometimes have people willing to come do outreach
  • Museums
  • HAM radio or electronics clubs

Engage volunteers from your school.

There are a million things parents can do to help make your night a success. Often parents feel like they can’t contribute to a STEM activity because they don’t have a STEM degree, but I’m here to tell you that there is a role for anyone at a science night. Look up videos or websites that give ideas for building or engineering activities. Many can incorporate an arts and crafts element, and many can be run with very cheap and easily accessible materials, and can be run by anyone who loves helping kids explore.

One of our most popular exhibits each year is a table of donated old computers, printers, toasters, and other broken things, and a giant pile of screwdrivers and pliers from the dollar store. The kids just sit there and take stuff apart to see what it looks like.  If you have one of these sorts of activities, make sure you remove batteries beforehand!

Have your PTA plan an e-waste fundraiser the next day and you’ve turned the event into a money-maker.

Synergize with other activities or groups to bring more people in.

We usually have our science night during the book fair – it brings people in to both events when they come for one and stay for the other. Or use the event to bring different parents groups together. Our PTA wanted more involvement with our parents who were active in the African American Parent Coucil, so one year the AAPC and PTA co-sponsored the event.  We featured an African-American Scientists and Inventors Hall of Fame with posters created by students who did research projects on the subject for extra class credit.

Have a class science fair.

If your school doesn’t have a science fair, or if science fair is only for older students, ask the principal and faculty if they’d be interested in having each class run an experiment together, and display the results from each class during your science night.

Food!

Make food available at the event so people will stay for the event through dinner, and so your volunteers and exhibitors will be able to eat. Never has a trend been so beneficial to school event organizers as the growing popularity of food trucks! Ask one if they’ll come and vend at your event. They may even give your PTA or PTO a cut of their profits!

Permits and permissions.

Make sure you have your facilities permits and site permissions in place well ahead of your event. Most public school districts will have some requirement that vendors show proof of insurance, and if you’re organizing for a private school you also need to know their liability insurance requirements.

Some districts may ask that your exhibitors (even the ones there as volunteers) sign hold harmless agreements. If this is the case in your district, know that most of the time people volunteering for these organizations will NOT be able to sign hold harmless agreements! Petition your school district to set policies such that one-time volunteers bringing activities to campus for a PTA or PTO event not be required to sign such agreements. Petitioning your school board can be time consuming, start early!

If the event is being run by a PTA or PTO, then it should be covered under your organization’s insurance policy.  Know your organization’s insurance policy and make sure you have it available when you talk to the site administration or the district.  Make sure that none of the science night activities fall under categories disallowed by your insurance policy, and make sure that your school or school district has an endorsement with your insurance policy. You may need to purchase an additional rider for the event, depending on how you are running it.  Again, check early!

Don’t be afraid to let it get messy!

As long as the kids are exploring, there is really no way to do a science night wrong. So go – have fun with it!

Plan for cleanup!

Whether it be volunteers breaking down the booths and putting things away or paid school site staff cleaning up the aftermath, make sure that you have this included in your plans.  You’ll either need to pay for the site staff’s time, or arrange to have that covered, or you’ll have to get volunteers that are willing to sign up to be on the clean-up staff.

(image credit: Edinburgh International Science Festival on Wikipedia)


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Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution. ...more →

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48 thoughts on “How To Have A Great School Science Night

  1. *Nodding*

    I was involved with Science Olympiad this year (for junior high and high school students). Some things happened to make it suboptimal – mainly that the people planning it were ALREADY working full-time jobs and then some, and also some of the volunteers withdrew at the last minute.

    If I could add a couple things?

    – Have more volunteers than you think you will need. I was alone in rooms with students which can be an uncomfortable situation and some districts probably wouldn’t allow. I had a couple middle school kids (kids supposed to be on a team) almost come to blows over….I don’t know what. I told them if they didn’t calm down I’d make them leave the competition and that threat worked, but I don’t know what I’d have done if it hadn’t. (We’re told at Science Fair DO NOT TOUCH THE STUDENTS so I don’t know how one would break up fighting students….)

    – Have someone check the rooms and bathrooms beforehand to make sure everything’s clean and good. Not so much a problem here but another event I worked….one of the bathrooms had not had its trash emptied in DAYS.

    – Do something tangible to thank your volunteers. We got pre-printed “certificates” on which we had to fill our own names if we wanted thanks. It felt very….minimal. I get that the people running it were pressed for time but for a college prof to spend hours planning an event beforehand, and give up an entire Saturday and deal with noise and chaos…..it felt kinda like very few people cared that we were doing this.(And there was almost no recognition on campus of the effort). I don’t know what I really would have wanted but the experience I had made me kinda hope I’m busy next year when this rolls around. (The state science fair sends an official letter that we can put in a promotions file or some such. And they gave us t-shirts)

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  2. Here is a question we debate a lot on LGM, when politicians talk about how we need more people in STEM, do they really mean it?

    There seem to be a lot of people on LGM with Science and Math PhDs who also seem to be perpetually unemployed and unemployable despite or because of their PhDs. Most of these PhDs are on the Science and Math fields of the acronym.

    So when politicians talk about the need for STEM, my impression is that they largely mean Technology and Engineering and would be fine to drop the quantum physics, marine biology and pure mathematics. They want things that help industry and commerce!!

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    • Saul,
      Your average politician is about as stupid as your average person.
      If you REALLY want to know why we need more STEM, it’s bloody simple.
      20 years from now, America will be able to support 200,000 people.
      If we can’t fix that, well — what the fuck do you think will happen?

      (And, in case you want sources cited, I’m getting this from someone whose climatalogical work won an Oscar).

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    • I suspect what we’re gonna need more are hundreds and hundreds of home-health worker types, to care for Baby Boomers as they age. Unfortunately, those jobs pay poorly and are demanding and often unpleasant. They don’t require a STEM degree.

      There’s a much-vaunted nurse shortage but it seems from my experience, a lot of people who want to go into nursing….don’t seem to have the math chops or the science chops.

      Honestly? I wouldn’t counsel anyone to aim for college teaching these days; too few positions with any kind of security, too much emphasis on “keepin’ the customer satisfied” rather than genuine learning.

      Teaching is still fun enough for me not to quit (and we’re still more or less left alone on my campus, and I have tenure, so it’s less likely I would be fired), but for someone fresh out of school – no.

      If I were doing it all over? I’d pay hecka lot better attention in Trig and Pre-Calc and go into engineering, go work for some kind of company where I got to try to break stuff for a living. That sounds fun.

      Some commentators I’ve heard seem to be calling for a “nation of entrepreneurs” instead, or a nation of “small businesspeople” but that seems like a tough way to make a living these days, too.

      I don’t know. Maybe all careers now are precarious and sucky, and the key is finding the one that sucks least for you.

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      • We were also discussing “Should you go to grad school?” over the weekend on LGM. I am a minority in this in that I seem to be one of the people who loved grad school and law school which means I was either not serious enough/competitive about it or just really into school. Possibly a bit of both.

        I saw the writing on the wall for tenure as far back as 2005 when I was a 25 year old Masters student. At the very least, tenure would involve not caring about where I wanted to live.

        To the extent that “STEM” fields are desirable, I suspect that it is because people are not always cut out for the more advanced math, science, and application there of. But coding has become the new law school for arts and humanities majors who are looking for something to do after graduation.

        I’m still a firm believer in an arts and humanities education because I am an arts and humanities kind of guy. Math and science are important but I loathe an educational system that becomes completely into tech and engineering because it applies more easily to commerce and industry!!

        My girlfriend comes from the part of Asia that was third world and undeveloped in living history but has seen huge standard of living increases and is now among the developed nations. A lot of her friends seem to have received educations that were basically math and science, math and science, followed by more math and science. My girlfriend is the exception here in that her high school also had a good arts program. I suspect that the way to turn me into a math and science and business person would have left me psychologically miserable. But at the same time, if I have kids I would worry about their economic future if they wanted to study the arts.

        What I’ve noticed about how the middle to upper-middle class raises and educates their kids is generally two fold:

        1. Your future is not certain, you have to pick something marketable and practical. You aren’t rich enough to study art; or

        2. You’re smart. Just study what interests you and you will find a way.

        I was raised in category 2 and it seems to be working out but the path has been rocky at times. Though I suspect no one predicted the market crash around 2008. There are pros and cons to both paths. I’ve seen path 1 lead to burn out and psychological misery. Path 2 can be rocky and lead to being a late bloomer or not blooming at all. But there is a part of me that is still in awe of people who knew they wanted to major in business and/or accounting at seventeen/eighteen.

        I was too romantic as a 17 year old for that. It took me until I was 25 to be realistic enough to consider law school, 28 to attend.

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        • #2 only works if you are, in fact, smart.

          There are a lot of people out there who are not particularly. Nothing wrong with being within one standard deviation of the mean, of course. Most people are… but there just aren’t *THAT* many people who are more than two standard deviations to the right.

          And if you’re not, you’d best learn something marketable and practical.

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          • Brutally honest but true. I’m pretty sure one of the reasons why degrees we’d consider less practical today were once a ticket to a better future is simply that we’re comparing now to a time when going to college more reliably meant that you were bright and motivated. A sharp kid with an actual interest in stuff can go on to do all sorts of useful things and be gainfully employed regardless of whether what he or she studied from ages 18-22 is practical.

            If you’re not that kid, it might be good to study something that’s immediately useful to people who are looking for workers, because they’re not going to hire you for your personality.

            I think Bryan Caplan said something like, “College is a great deal if you’re a great student, a mediocre deal if you’re a mediocre student, and a bad deal if you’re a bad student.” Or, as my physics professor responded to a student asking for an extra credit opportunity, “Why would I raise your grade from a C just because you’re offering to do more C-level work for me?”

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            • Or, as my physics professor responded to a student asking for an extra credit opportunity, “Why would I raise your grade from a C just because you’re offering to do more C-level work for me?”

              Ouch! As you say, brutally honest.

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            • People forget – or never knew beecause they didn’t watch Sports Night in the first place – thw othwr half of the quote is “if you are smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”

              Which is why sites like this one are so important – the other side is generally not trolling, has most of the basic facts and rarely denies their existence, and is for the most part respectful and honest. As bad as it gets around here, I can’t think of another commentariat this stably diverse.

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        • Lots to think about here:

          1. I am probably not more than 1 standard deviation above “normal smartness.” In fact, I may be within 1 std. dev. but I have a phenomenal memory and that is what got me through school so successfully. (A good memory is nice but you won’t get rich off of it, unless you are truly freakishly good and also can position yourself as sort of a modern sideshow act)

          2. I don’t recommend that students go into Ph.D. programs any more UNLESS they have a source of income (a student of mine is going to do one but his wife is a doctor and makes enough to support them both, and he can TA to cover his tuition and fees). People should not go into debt for a Ph.D. because the chances of recouping that money are extremely low (again, unless you are in that “incredibly above the normal range of intelligence or inventiveness,” in which case you might not even NEED a Ph.D.). I also tell people not to do it unless you waaaaaaaaant it for weird deep inner reasons (that is why I did a Ph.D. – something in me said I needed it). Don’t do it because your parents want you to, or your spouse, or your boss. Do it because you want it or you’ll never finish it.

          3. For most endeavors in science these days, a Master’s probably makes more sense. Being a head of a lab (a vanishingly rare job) or a tenured prof (also becoming a vanishingly rare thing – tenure-track positions) are about the only things you need beyond a Master’s for. A Master’s makes you more flexible and you’re not likely to hear “Sorry, you’re overqualified.”

          I also know ways too many Ph.D.s who are now “freeway flyers” or “academic gypsies” who are very resentful because they feel like the “unspoken contract” they were part of (“Work hard, be honest, get an advanced degree, and eventually you will get a tenure-track job”) has been violated.

          As for 1 vs. 2: I lean more towards 1. I have said many places that “follow your bliss” is terrible job advice (Well, unless you want to become a monk or nun, in which case, carry on). Find something tolerable to you that is useful to society and do that. If necessary, find a hobby to give your life meaning. (Or something like religious practice).

          (Actually, now I think of it: perhaps some of my distress in the past couple years is I’ve looked too hard to my career to make my life feel meaningful, when what really moves me is singing in church or teaching adult Bible study or sewing on a quilt or working in the garden. And I need to not belittle those things just because they’re not paid or won’t have a “lasting” impact the way a journal article I write – which no one will ever read, really – does.)

          More and more, though, I think various things sometimes grouped as “soft skills” – being responsible, showing up for stuff on time, being able to write a coherent paragraph, etc., etc. – may be the things that get and keep a job. (I don’t know. Maybe I’m fooling myself on that as I look with worry at future budget cuts and tell myself, “If this gig evaporates you can find any job you want; you’re smart and have common sense and you’re the kind of person who always shows up and who gets the work done”)

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        • ” I loathe an educational system that becomes completely into tech and engineering because it applies more easily to commerce and industry!! ”

          The kind of people who send their kids to college so that they can get a good degree and not have to work on a smelly loading dock their entire lives do not give two hoots about arts and humanities. Tech and engineering are what they *want* their kids to study, because if you aren’t a rich white kid who can skate by on connections then you damn better have some ability to put numbers together.

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        • I read both Loomis’s initial piece and the comments with interest. While terminal Masters programs got mentioned a bit, the main thrust was about the lifestyle and other problems associated with getting a PhD and pursuing an academic career.

          I loved graduate school — when I was going as far as a Masters and no farther. Interesting material, good pace, and a minimum of the “take large numbers of hours in various other subjects.” I have zero regrets about all of those blocks of hours as an undergraduate, but in both of my Masters degrees I was looking for depth in a particular subject. If money were no object, I would cheerfully spend the next 20 years — probably all I can realistically expect — building a collection of terminal Masters degrees. I have a research topic where I could use a Masters-level depth in at least a couple of other subjects.

          But I probably wouldn’t ever be successful at a PhD. To quote a couple of friends with PhDs the last time I started a PhD track: “Mike, we know you can do research; we’ve watched you do PhD-level research for an entire career. But you lack the tolerance for academic bullshit that goes with finishing a PhD.” That’s my personal shortcoming, of course, not a knock on the people who can handle it.

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          • My Masters degree is terminal so I can theoretically become a tenured professor. There are people who get PhDs in Dramatic Lit, Theatre History, etc but my advisor as an undergrad only had an MFA and he was a tenured chair of the department.

            The interesting thing is that in grad school for an MFA, a lot of your professors might not even have an MFA but they were successful professionals.*

            But I still saw the chances of tenure as being nothing especially in any area where I would want to live.

            *This raises the question about whether an MFA in the arts is necessary which has been hotly debated for the past few years. The answer is that it has seemingly become necessary for any kind of sustained professional work except for a few lucky souls. Though the thing about an MFA, including the top MFAs like the Iowa Writers Workshop, the Yale School of Drama, or Julliard is that it is a mixed bag. You can be wildly successful or destitute. But the schools mentioned above do open doors.

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            • Loomis, and the vast majority of the commenters, were writing about fields where today there’s not a chance in hell of getting a tenure-track position without a PhD.

              While I was in grad school at UT-Austin I met a long-time instructor in the Petroleum Engineering Dept who lacked any college degree. He taught the applied class in drilling mud (a professor with a PhD in some field of chemistry taught the graduate course on the theory parts of drilling mud). While it was extremely unlikely that he would lose that position short of the department shutting down, he was never going to be formally tenured because he couldn’t meet any of the university requirements for peer-reviewed publications.

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            • Speaking as an engineer:

              A Master’s Degree was beneficial for me in that it gave me further opportunity to mature in the areas of conducting experiments and writing up reports, in performing communication of engineering concepts and plans to colleagues and superiors, and in understanding of the fundamental mechanics behind the design practices I followed (and when those practices could and should be modified or dismissed entirely).

              I didn’t *need* an MS to go sit down at a terminal and start doing CAD work, though.

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              • For me, the MS was a great opportunity to do a deep dive into the nuts & bolts of turning all those beautiful equations and theories into actual, functioning code, and how one manages all the moving and interdependent pieces; without having to invent a whole new wheel at the end.

                It was well worth the time.

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        • Part of the problem is the idea that ‘getting a liberal arts degree is a clear indicator that number 2 is true’. There are enough people with BAs who are 1-2 StdDevs to the left, but who still managed to secure a degree somehow, to poison the well, as such. Of course, there are such people with BS degrees, but the nature of the material makes it tougher to game unless the school itself is complicit (e.g. a degree mill, Joe’s Cheap & Easy Engineering School, etc.).

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          • I somewhat concur.

            It is probably easier to BS your way through a humanities course or degree but I have a hard time separating what is dismissive attitudes over theory (especially critical theory) and what is honestly someone winging it.

            I have my issues with academic language and inaccessibility but part of the whole debate is whether art is something that can be taught or not and/or is worthy of being an academic disciple.

            I think a lot of people have a dismissive attitude towards art and design even though a lot of their lives would be boring without art.

            Meryl Street, Henry Winkler, and Sigourney Weaver are all classically and formally trained actors. They all went to Yale for grad school in acting. Would they be the same without it is an impossible question to answer. But I am inclined to the idea that their formal training helped them grow as artists.

            Lots of famous writers have MFAs in writing.

            Wayne Thieubaud studied art formally at the graduate level, etc. Artists have always had varying degrees of formal and informal training. But while it is not as precise as the technical language of an engineering program, that doesn’t mean it is not bullshit.

            Also a lot of abstract art tends to get dismissed as bullshit for being not mainstream in ways that no one would do for theoretical math or physics.

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          • At some point, any reasonable engineering dept forces its students to at least muddle through linear algebra and intro to differential equations. I maintain that there are very few people of normal intelligence who can’t get through those subjects, given sufficient time, proper resources, and a bunch of encouragement. What there are is a lot of people who can’t get through those classes as usually taught in college.

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            • The truth of this statement is… profound. Doubly so if those classes are taught by math professors and TAs, for math majors, with little regard for the STE & A majors who have to take them.

              I will be forever grateful to the Economist who taught me College Algebra and the Physicist who taught me Calculus I, as both were deeply concerned with making sure ALL of their students gained proficiency with the topics, and neither was a University Math Professor.

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              • I was lucky from the other direction by going through Honors Calculus.* The prof was from Louisiana and ran a formal classroom: he was Prof. Lewis and we were all Mr. or Ms. Surname. He had a practice of stopping in the middle of something that wasn’t in the book, or was being presented differently than in the book, looking across the classroom, and asking, “Mr. (or Ms.) Surname, what comes next?” I (correctly) thought I got picked on a lot. On the way back to the dorm late one afternoon, one of the women in the class asked me, “Mike, why does Prof. Lewis hate you?” “What do you mean?” “You get asked ‘What comes next?’ twice as often as anyone else.”

                Many years later the same prof, then head of the department, invited me back to campus for the department’s 100th anniversary to give a talk to be titled “A Math Degree in the Real World.” I took the opportunity to tell him that story, and that I had nightmares about “Mr. Cain, what comes next?” long after I graduated. He told me that he had thought there was a mathematician in there that needed encouragement to come out. It all worked out in the end, but I wonder if some of the pain could have been avoided.

                * Honors Calc did the three semester sequence in two semesters** and assumed you were a math major. At any point you could bail and be assigned without prejudice to a standard calculus class. By the end of the two semesters about a quarter of the students bailed.

                ** When I went back to graduate school as an old guy, I had to order up undergraduate transcripts. When they arrived, there was a letter enclosed that said an error had been made when my Honors Calc credit hours were converted and my final grade point average was two-hundredths of a point higher than what had been reported when I graduated. I had missed out on qualifying for various sorts of honors back then by one-hundredth of a point. I don’t suppose that it had any significant** impacts on my life.

                **The only possibility is that it would have bumped me up one place on the list of applicants for Stanford’s computer science program. If I had been third, instead of fourth, I would have been accepted, and gone there*** instead of UT-Austin’s math department.

                ***I was born in California. My parents moved back to Iowa when I was just under three. I was thinking about it the other day, and there are a surprising number of times when something that seems trivial kept me from ending up back in California.

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                • I had three math instructors at MATC before I went to UW. They were all practical math people (i.e. people with STE degrees). Of the 4 math professors I had at UW, only one was worth a damn. Both calculus professors and the DiffyQs professor couldn’t be bothered with anyone who wasn’t a math major. My linear algebra instructor was a visiting prof from Switzerland, and once I got used to his accent (French, btw), he was aces (and I mean that, he was happy to spend lots of time in office hours making sure you had it down).

                  Calc 2 & 3 were both ugly (I failed calc 2 the first time through, even though I got an A in Calc 1), and DiffyQs would have been, but by that time I had so much exposure to PDEs & ODEs in my engineering classes that it was almost old hat.

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            • I’ll add that a lot of the reason most people can’t get through those classes is because the first step to doing so is to get past the idea that ‘you can’t do math/you are not a math person/math is just too complicated and difficult/etc.’, which is a mindset that get instilled in a lot of people in middle & high school by parents and/or teachers.

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              • I remember that a big challenge for a lot of my non-math-major class mates when they took math courses was having to go from doing computations (integrals, solving equations, et c.) to doing proofs, which is a significant switch for a lot of folks, and something most of them hadn’t done since a dimly remembered high school geometry class.

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            • Another point where it doesn’t take much to poison the well.

              We’ve all heard the stories of some Liberal Arts college* offering some degree that a lot of people mock as worthless on it’s face (the proverbial Underwater Basket Weaving degree). It becomes a game of guilt by association that challenges the academic rigor of the school.

              Not too many STEM schools offering degrees people mock.

              *This also applies to schools with influential athletics programs, who purportedly have easy classes/degrees for athletes.

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        • We had a Comp Sci requirement to fulfill, and most of my classmates just took a CS101 class and a class that focused on writing macros for math pkgs (Excel, Maple, Matlab, MathCad, and Mathematica). I was one of the few that decided to take the next two classes after CS101, and that decision has helped pay a lot of bills over the years.

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          • Ultimately I ended up getting a job that led to my current job because I’d taught myself Lisp and C++, and knowing Lisp helps immensely Mathematica. Mathematica is basically all I use all these days when I actually get to do work instead of sit in meetings.

            I’ve basically never used C++ since, though, which is probably for the best ’cause it’s awful.

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    • The line between pure and applied math can be hard to draw, and moves regularly. Certain parts of algebra (the kind Schilling writes about occasionally, not the stuff everyone gets in high school) were just theory — until they turned out to be critical for cryptography. And they make spy thriller movies about hypothetical new theoretical math that renders current cryptography worthless. Ditto for parts of topology — until they turned out to be critical for protein folding (after the biologists figured out that the shape of a folded protein was important to its function). Cell phones are full of fast Fourier transforms and other DSP algorithms that started out as mathematical curiosities. Layout for a billion-transistor integrated circuit depends on graph theory that was pure theory when it was done.

      I’ve never been more than an applied mathematician, but have always claimed that understanding the theory is important, because it tells you “where the ice is thin”. That is, where the algorithms are going to fail.

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  3. Also: Rehearse the demo at least *once*, preferably more often. Nothing is more awkward than a teacher mumbling “well this was supposed to work” or “according to the directions something should have happened” or just fumbling with tape and half-inflated balloons and bits of string while the kids all play Minecraft on their phones.

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    • This is a good one, particularly if you have demos that are being run by folks who don’t run them routinely.

      You forget about this one when you’ve done a million of these, because you’ve dragooned the same folks into doing the demos so they’re all old hat.

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  4. Other tips…

    Find some ECE or elementary teachers with a science mind and ask them to set up hands-on, little-kid-friendly activities. I do an “oobleck” table most years at our local fair and its a huge hit for kids big and small alike, with the former able to learn about non-traditional states of matter. This allows entire families to attend.

    Think WAY outside the box for presenters. We get the local FD to showcase night vision goggles in a blackened room and discuss fire safety. Plus older kids interested in the department can make contacts. We’ve also found local hobbyists who make their own little molten metal toys demonstrate the process (note: keep little kiddos away from the molten stuff).

    Interactive, interactive, interactive! Unless you have phenomenal presenters (rare), have as many interactive exhibits as possible.

    Animals!!!

    Feed your presenters. If you’re asking for all-day volunteers, have a spread somewhere or get them vouchers for your food sellers.

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    • And ideally, have a choice of food.

      By good fortune, I was able to run home for a half-hour to grab lunch: the volunteers’ lunch was salty pizza (and all-the-meats pizza, at that) from the local pizza purveyor, and donuts. I (a) do low sodium and (b) was doing reduced-carb at that point….so not a lot I could eat.

      not sure what a vegetarian or gluten-free person or lactose-intolerant person would do.

      (Then again – those of us with food issues often learn we just have to plan. If I hadn’t been able to count on that 1/2 hour I would have carried food with me)

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