January/February 2004

Outreach and Education: Reflections from the Trenches

Dear Sir or Madam:

Send me as much information as you can about the 1994 Northridge earthquake. I am doing a school project and I need information and photographs.

John Q. Student


Dear Sir or Madam:

My 5th grade students have compiled a list of 50 questions about earthquakes. Could you please answer them and send the answers back by mail?

John Q. Teacher


The above two letters are less paraphrased than one might guess from actual communications I have seen or received in recent months. These letters, and others of the same ilk, leave me with both a sense of concern and a disinclination to respond--the latter in spite of a sincere belief in the value of outreach and education.

Letters such as these concern me because they reveal a distinct lack of intelligent consideration or preparation. One could imagine snippets of letters that would convey a different overall sense: "I have searched Web sites for information on the 1994 Northridge earthquake but have been unable to find a photograph that shows the damage that this earthquake caused to homes. Would you be able to send me such a picture?" Or, "My students read parts of This Dynamic Earth and they have compiled the following five questions about plate tectonics." Letters such as these reveal a number of things that the first messages sorely lack. They reveal an appreciation for the value of the recipient's time, but they reveal much more: evidence that students have done their homework and, more fundamentally, that students have some sense of what scholarship entails.

All too often, kids' activities seem to convey the impression that if you want to learn something, the very first thing you should do is seek out an expert to answer your questions. Such an approach may be the norm in journalism, where the exigencies of a fast-paced business do not leave time for in-depth research in libraries. Still, any journalist worth his salt does not call experts unprepared. A typical call might begin, "I have read a press release on an upcoming science paper by John Q. Scientist and was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions about it." In a place like Southern California, one usually talks to journalists who have covered the earthquake beat for many years and whose background understanding is considerable. (Throughout my career with the USGS I have let exactly one media inquiry go unanswered, one that arrived out of the blue via e-mail, during a very busy time in the aftermath of a large earthquake: "I am writing a story for _____ newspaper. Please tell me how earthquakes start.")

Clearly, even journalists on deadlines have appreciation for the old saying: A scholar doesn't know the answer to every question; he (or she) knows how to find the answer to every question. And answering questions entails more than finding an expert to answer every question. It involves legwork, homework, research. Saying these things to SSA members is clearly preaching to the choir: Scientists understand the importance of scholarship. School children, on the other hand, need to learn it. When one receives letters such as those above, one worries that they are being taught instead to look for easy answers. Many scientists, including this one, believe in the value of, and have an explicit mandate to stay active in, outreach and education. I therefore find myself biting my tongue, figuratively speaking, to not craft the reply I would sometimes like to send back:

Dear John Q. Student,

You can find abundant information on the Northridge earthquake, including photographs, on the Web. If you do not have Internet access at home, you should be able to find it at your school or the public library in your town. Libraries are delightful places. They also have books, and many have old newspapers as well. They even have librarians: men and women who are delighted to see their books being put to good use.

I am enclosing a one-page fact sheet on the earthquake. Write me again when you have an intelligent question to ask.

Jane Q. Scientist


Instead of sending the above reply I am much more likely to assemble a few materials from the supplies available in our office and send them along. It is especially unwise to be seen as an uppity and unresponsive Civil Servant. But I send the dutiful replies with a pang that I am doing students no favors by handing them the answers that they are asking for. I wonder if a less overtly helpful reply--perhaps a more polite version of the above snippy reply--wouldn't be more helpful in the long run.

My reservations moreover go beyond the sense of righteous, old-fogey indignation, that kids should be learning to do their homework, formulate intelligent questions, and seek the answers. Another thing that as scientists we know well: The essence of science lies in arriving at the answers that do not reveal themselves easily. The point of scholarship is, after all, not only understanding but rather discovery--discovery is also what makes scholarship worthwhile, and science fun. If children learn anything about science during the 12 years they spend in school, surely it should be this.

Susan E. Hough
U.S. Geological Survey, Pasadena

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact the SRL editor by e-mail.



Posted: 21 June 2005