Why you SHOULD respond to student requests

by Shane L. Larson

To my colleagues in professional science:

There has been a tremendous and acerbic backlash over the last week against a current popular practice of K-12 students emailing professional scientists with a list of questions they would like the scientists to comment on. I too have received these emails, and I have to very clearly state (in case you haven’t already been in one of these debates with me) that I have an unpopular view on this issue: I vehemently reject the view that we cannot respond to these emails. It is part of our professional obligation to society to respond to these notes.

In the spirit of intellectual debate, which is the purported hallmark of our discipline, let me recount some of the many aspects of the arguments that have been swirling around.

The Scenario. Emails will sail into our inboxes from (usually) middle-school science students, that asks the scientist if they could answer a series of questions.  Here is a typical one that made its way into my inbox.

examples

These emails are often clearly part of a classroom activity assigned by a teacher. There are those of us who diligently respond to as many of these as we can; we share them among our colleagues when we can’t get to them ourselves. But many of my colleagues simply don’t see the point in engaging scientists this way; they feel like they cannot or do not have the ability to respond to these requests.  Which is where the debate begins to swirl.

(*) They can just look this up on Wikipedia!  Perhaps. But even a casual inspection of science pages on Wikipedia will reveal that it has become an increasingly difficult resource to use, particularly for non-scientists. Wikipedians have taken the viewpoint that entries on the site should contain all the information one could traditionally find in a book. Many entries, especially those related to science, have wide ranging and rambling connections from all branches of science and more often than not divert into mathematical rambling. One earnest sixth grader asked me “Can you explain what a black hole is?” I would say the Wikipedia page on black holes is decidedly NOT for a sixth grader!

(*) These are thoughtless stream of consciousness questions about topics that they just picked out of a hat. They didn’t put any thought into these.  Perhaps in some cases that is true. But it is understandable — we’re talking about middle-schoolers.  For example, almost everyone has heard of black holes, but very few know enough to ask better questions than “what are they really?” But a carefully constructed answer from you can (and will) spark deeper interest, and can (and will) provide a better foundation for the next time they have a chance to ask a scientist a question — perhaps in class, perhaps in a public lecture, perhaps as part of an organized interface activity (like Adopt A Physicist).

(*) They should learn to read and process information from online and print sources; it’s a necessary skill.  That’s right, it is and they should. But they are perhaps 12 years old, and you are saying that from the far end of a PhD in modern science. Learning to read and process information, and more importantly learning how to find reliable sources of information, is something I spend time teaching my undergraduates and my graduate students. It is not as easy as you make it sound when you speak from behind your PhD. I’m sure if you talked to their teachers, you would find that they are doing activities to practice learning the skill you so ardently insist they must learn. But when you are a K-12 student, it is hard to exercise whatever mastery you have of that skill to glean something important about the modern frontiers of science.

(*) I don’t have time to respond to all the requests I get.  Does responding to a lot of emails from students and random members of the public take time? Of course it does. Just like answering your own students. Just like answering your collaborators. Just like answering your department chair or dean. Just like doing research. Just like writing grant proposals. We all have tremendous pressure on our time; that is a fact of life and simply the state that modern science finds itself in. And the truth is that we all spend time on what we value and prioritize; if you don’t value something, then you don’t do it or you don’t spend time on it. If you do value something, you make room for it and devalue something else — it all boils down to priorities and the calculus of not being able to do everything. If you aren’t doing something because it takes too much of your time to do it, you have to be willing to say, “this isn’t important enough for me to spend my time doing. I have other things that I think are more important.”

I get a handful of these requests, but not so many that I can’t answer them; far fewer than I get from my own students, to be perfectly honest. If I do get too many, I share them among colleagues. Given that our lives as scientists are dedicated to solving the hardest problems known to our species, I find it hard to believe that someone inundated by an unanswerably large number of these requests cannot figure out a way to get responses to these students.

(*) I don’t see the pedagogical value of having students email a scientist. Students shouldn’t have answers hand fed to them.  It is NOT for you to decide what is pedagogically useful, it is for the teacher who made the assignment. They have their own learning goals and their own objectives for everything they assign their students, just like you do in your own classroom. It is NOT for you to judge what they do in their classroom any more than it is for me to judge what you do in your classroom.

You should take one of the sets of questions you get, and try to find the answers on your own. Try not to view webpages and books through the lens of your professional degrees; if you find that hard, ask your own kids or a neighbors kids to evaluate a resource you think is useful.  I think you will be surprised — while there is much good science out there for people to find, there is a lot of not so good explanations as well. The signal to noise ratio is very low; you and I have been explicitly trained to work through that.

But the most important reason for me to respond to a student inquiry is they will get something different in a response from me and you than they can get from any book. Perspective, experience, personal reflection — the human side of science, the personal side of science, an illustration of what I think is important as a scientist, the history and heroes that I think are important that aren’t always described in books.

When I answered the questions above, what did I add that couldn’t be had elsewhere?

How long does it take to produce a star? Sure, you can look up the collapse time for a molecular cloud to stars, but I also talked about the scope of the question, pointing out that one could have also thought about the previous generations of stars that made the material that is needed to create a star system like ours.

Do stars have color? I made sure in my answer that the student heard the names Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Do I believe in life elsewhere? An opportunity to talk about a personal belief, and where that interfaces with research science on the topic — a chance to illustrate the all too human part of science. I also pointed at one of the finest explorations of the question I have ever seen — Peter Mulvey’s song, “Vlad, the Astrophysicist” (YouTube video here); the intersection of science and society at its finest.

In the end, I think it boils down to this: we like to make loud noises about the current state of public understanding of science, but tucking our heads down is part of the reason the world is in the state it is in. It may have been okay 40 years ago to keep your attention narrowly focused on research; but 40 years ago the Cold War and the military-industrial complex allowed science to enjoy unprecedented support in the form of funding and societal tolerance.  That is not the world today; science is regularly challenged and questioned, in society and in the halls of government, much to the detriment of our civilization and the future of our planet.

But all is not lost. There is tremendous interest on the part of students and the public about science, in large part because of the very prominent and inspiring successes of our experiments that society has invested in: LIGO, the LHC, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many, many others. A few of our august bunch are very prominent in the public eye: Brian Cox, Lisa Randall, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before them there was Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, and (still!) David Attenborough. They have set a fire in the minds of your neighbors and in the minds of every science teacher on the planet who are now trying to light that same fire in the minds of their students. They will do their best to light an ember, but only you and I can fan the flames. There is something unique and special about communicating directly with someone who has seen the Cosmos through the eyes of the Hale Telescope, or someone who has stood over the arm of LIGO, or watched a vista of Mars slowly unfold as Curiosity sends us a picture from over the next rise.

Out of an entire class of 7th graders, will you move and inspire all of them to a life of science? Of course not, and you don’t need to. But many of them will remember later in life that they once talked to a scientist who took time out of their schedule to respond to them.  And a few will be inspired.

In one of the many dilapidated boxes that my mother has carefully preserved is a bundle of letters I received in my childhood. One is a letter I received in 7th grade from an astronomer (physicist?) at the University of British Columbia, who took time to write a paper letter in response to an earnest inquiry from a young boy who wanted to know what it took to become an astronomer. I have another letter (undoubtedly a form letter?) from someone at NASA in 1986, assuring a worried and spiritually crushed young boy that NASA would, eventually, return to space in the wake of the Challenger disaster. These are paper responses, with stamps and envelopes and everything; not even as easy as an email.

These were scientists who made the time in their busy schedules to respond to a inquiry from a student, and in the end I think it made all the difference in the world.

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20 responses to “Why you SHOULD respond to student requests

  1. Well said! I’m based in Britain, and the BBC has a wonderful habit of preparing many documentaries, each year, on the hottest scientific topics: LIGO, LHC, exoplanets, the fact that we still don’t have a unifying theory of physics and so on. Many of your colleagues take part to this documentaries, and I’m sure glad you guys spend time explaining these problems for the layman (such as me). Thanks for this, and thanks for responding to letters!

  2. And just think maybe answering an email might inspire a child or adult to enjoy science more. It’s like an interview, certainly pedagogical in nature. Let alone share with the entire school. You will reach a very large audience. BTW it’s ok to say you don’t know. That might inspire them to research it and share.

    • Shane L. Larson

      In my responses to students all the time “We don’t know the answer to this question, but here is what scientists are doing to try and figure it out” is always a prominent response. 🙂

  3. Cheri L Davidson

    This is balm to my 6th grade teacher soul. Thank you doesn’t seem like quite enough, but thank you!

    • Shane L. Larson

      I’m glad to stand shoulder to shoulder. My teachers were enormously influential to me, as were the people who crossed my path even briefly when I was younger. There are many of my colleagues, like me, who take this interface seriously and don’t want rumblings to discourage or completely disrupt whatever fragile lines existing between us and the K-12 world. Please share with your friends and colleagues.

  4. Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    I agree with this guy. Even though I doubt the educational value of teachers asking kids to send these things out, I always try to reply.

  5. Hi 1. Very big number of years 2. Mr Einstein say This is nothing and everything And have different kind of materia 3.human eyes see strong lights and transform information to the Brain and U see LOT of colurs Sorry i have som kind of problem ( home buttom

    Skickat från min iPhone

  6. Aloha Shane,

    A pertinent piece – I applaud your efforts and hope they have an affect.

    As their discoveries get more counter intuitive scientists need to get better at explaining them. Explaining them not with numbers but with words. Answering emails from students seems like fine practice.

    I suspect that practice could be put to good use in future funding efforts.

    Shane, there are people who think so, but I don’t consider myself particularly dumb. Still at my level of understanding there are glaring contradictions in some science. I find myself envious of the students. Who can I email my questions to?

    A Hui Hou,
    Wayne .

    • Shane L. Larson

      Hi Wayne — access to scientists who can explain modern science discoveries is an issue for everyone, but I there are ways to find people to talk to. It of course depends on what you are interested in. At blogs like this one, I’ve covered a wide range of topics, mostly in astronomy but some in physics. Reading and asking a question in a comment to a post will always garner an answer here, as I try to pay attention. Other blogs may also have similar results. Internet forums are a bit harder, because they are sometimes frequented by scientists and sometimes not, so it is sometimes hard to get authoritative answers. Citizen science projects like Zooniverse usually have strong scientist participation in their discussion areas. It depends on what you’re interested in — if you can tell me more, I can help you find some places to settle in. If you have questions about astronomy or (some) physics, I can certainly try to help too — I answer as many questions from the general public as I do kids! 🙂

  7. I respond to these since one result of sending these questions is to let the kids/senders know that scientists are real, not just some caricature or abstract “thing” at the university or research lab. I’ve typically not had that much follow-up beyond a simple thank-you. However, I have had those same people show up years later at our school and say, “You don’t remember me but when I was in the 6th grade…” That’s always a good thing to hear. And honestly, if you don’t have that much time to answer you can at least say “Let me at answer one of your questions here…” and then wish them luck on their other questions. But please don’t to say “I only have time to answer one question…” since that implies the inquiry isn’t important. Do what you can, and word things with encouragement.

    • Cheri L Davidson

      Agree wholeheartedly! My students don’t see scientists except in the abstract. It’s not like a doctor, police or many other occupations they encounter first hand or even on television everyday i.e. rock stars, professional sports figures and the like. When scientists personally respond, they become real and thus a viable option for their future.

    • Shane L. Larson

      Rhett — this last bit is also an excellent strategy. I will remember that and suggest it to people too.

  8. I respectfully disagree.

    I have been following some Twitter conversation about this. First of all, your opening “unpopular view” is a strawman. I don’t know anyone who has been saying that you cannot, or even should not, respond to such e-mail requests. What absolutely is the case, however, is that you (or anyone else) is not obligated to engage with such outreach. This is true even if (and perhaps even especially) the scientist being emailed is known for their outreach efforts.

    I also find it very odd that some people will tell other scientists how and what form they should be doing outreach. People outreach in the form of youtube videos, TED talks, blogs, radio interviews, school visits etc. At the end of the day, however, we are human and need to make decisions with time. Decisions about which forms of outreach or advocacy they believe to be meaningful and which they want to prioritize time to partake in become part of this evaluation. Whether or not someone can make time in theory is not relevant, I’m sure there are many worthwhile endeavors you also do not have time or resources to engage with. Making people feel guilty for not doing certain outreach is like making them feel guilty for every charity they do not donate to, every homeless person they do not contribute to, etc.

    While I certainly hope there are resources that kids can turn to outside of class and the internet, the reality is that we live in a world where 1) people cannot do everything 2) we have to rely on the existence of other people/programs to take the slack off of us. Just as we need plumbers, mechanics, janitors, road workers, etc. to allow the world to function coherently.

    On your comment that it is not for scientists to decide what is pedagogically useful, well, since the e-mail was sent to the scientist, that does become part of their evaluation on how to proceed. Most scientists should be in a position to reasonably judge the merits of their class assignment. As far as “inspiring the kids,” I get the romantization of this…I appreciate that a well thought out letter may make a future girl inspired to be an astronaut, or a schoolyard boy inspired to study the atmosphere of Titan, but in practice answering laundry lists of questions assigned to them is unlikely to “set off that spark.”

    Of course, you can say, “well for every 100 responses, maybe one will inspire the kid.” Yes, but that is a gamble people take in all facets of life, either in time management, cost-benefit analysis, or otherwise. People do have grants to write, papers to produce, reviews to finish, and even other outreach efforts to prepare for. If my lack of e-mail response set off a butterfly effect in motion such that we lost a would-be scientist, that is unfortunate, but I hope science proceeds through the statistics of would-be scientists remaining steady (or getting better!).

    Now, it is probably respectful to at least respond with, “sorry, I cannot help with this, try x or y or z.” The most popular of us likely cannot even afford that. Even better if the grade school teachers instructed their students to first ask politely if we have the interest or time, with a well-posed outline of the assignment, before sending a bunch of questions along.

    • Shane L. Larson

      Hi Chris –

      These are well reasoned points, and as with all complex issues that involve people and societal interactions are nuanced and difficult to make definitive arguments one way or the other. We all have our own experiences we appeal to, and a long list of anecdotal evidences that we can drag out to support our viewpoints. Certainly the view I espouse here is that scientists should be engaged in this — that is an opinion built on my own worldview and experiences about scientists interacting with society. I have plenty of anecdotes and data to support my point.

      But you make and important point here: not everyone has to do the SAME kind of outreach to society (in this case, the debate here is about outreach to K-12 kids, and by extension their teachers and parents); this post started because I don’t think we should tell teachers not to do this.

      The underlying argument I am positing, however, is that every scientist must do something that reaches beyond their lab, beyond their research, beyond their classroom. To argue that you do not have the resources or time or ability to do so is fallacious; it supposes that these things are outside the scope of what a scientist is supposed to be doing (e.g. research and/or teaching). Today’s world does not allow much room for such views.

      I also think it is important for teachers to hear exactly the message I have put forward here, because I don’t think all scientists take the view nor support the view that many of my colleagues have been espousing regarding the practice of emailing scientists. Again, I certainly have plenty of positive response from teachers, from parents, from current science students and practicing scientists, as well as colleagues who agree with the view promoted here.

      If you’re a scientist who doesn’t think they can respond to such inquiries, by all means don’t — that’s your prerogative. But if you’re a teacher who finds value in this, by all means keep doing it because there are those of us out here who think there is merit in the activity, and there are good reasons why a living, breathing scientist is the best person to provide the answers to some questions, no matter how “easy” or “common” we may think they are.

      — s

    • ROBERT ROBINSON

      In plain English please

  9. Kathy Hartrum

    As a retired middle school science teacher I want to affirm and endorse everything that Shane said in this post. There were a couple of occasions that I offered my students the opportunity to ask a “real” scientist their questions. I did take care to help them refine and edit their questions before they sent them off but the questions were their own. Communicating with scientists working in the field also serves to humanize the scientists in the eyes of the kids and thus helping the kids realize that it is possible for them also to become scientists. Finally, when I was in high school (in the late 60’s) I was extremely interested and intrigued with the brand new field of heart transplantation. A friend knew a cardiac surgeon (Dr. Cooley) from her church and facilitated me writing him a letter. He took the time to answer all the questions I had and to refer me to additional resources that I subsequently pursued. The fact that this very busy and important surgeon took the time to respond to me fueled and encouraged my passion to pursue science. I did not become a heart surgeon but I did earn advanced degrees in environmental science and molecular biology. Part of the reason I entered the classroom as a teacher was to “inspire the next generation of explorers”. And, in 1995, my dad received a heart transplant. His surgeon was a successor to the surgeon who originally wrote to me. You never know the impact or reach of your kindnesses to youngsters. Thank you to Dr. Cooley and all the rest of you who nourish the development of school kids’ pursuit of science careers.

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  12. Responding to questions like these shows young people that scientists are real individuals, not remote beings with huge brains and no personality. And it might be good for kids to be told that not everything has been discovered, that there are gaps in our understanding of the world, and that one day they could play a part in scientific development.

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