Middle school outreach – reflections on my research
Like Mari Isa, for this blog post, I will be talking about the outreach event that CAP ran for Holmes Middle School in Livonia, MI on Friday, January 19th. However, I will be discussing it from a different point of view. In Mari’s blog, she discussed the activity itself: what we had the students look at, what the goals of the activity were, what the outcomes were, etc. I will be coming from a different standpoint: that of a grad student leading the activity and how it impacted us.
As academics (or in my case, an academic in training), we sometimes forget that our research and our purpose aren’t just to further our knowledge in our respective fields for ourselves or other academics. It is true that in many cases the audience of our publications are other researchers and those in research institutions. Yet where we can have the biggest impact is in the public sector through outreach activities such as these. These types of events were not common or even really practiced when I myself was in middle school or even in high school. That these outreach events are becoming more prominent and more of the norm is highly encouraging and definitely has an impact on many of the students. However, this event was not a one-way conversation with us researchers just lecturing about archaeology at the middle schoolers who passively listen. As an instructor in this exercise, I learned a few very important things/lessons.
1.) This type of outreach matters. Despite what many students say, they do actually love to learn, especially in a hands-on capacity. Education can be highly effective by taking a tactile route. Reading information out of books is highly informative, but actively engaging in the research with tangible objects routes that knowledge in reality and makes that knowledge real. With every class, there was at least one student or group of students that guessed their “mystery site” dated “to the Neolithic, like Çatal Höyük” (seriously, multiple students said this exact phrase). The students are learning about ancient cultures and time periods and it is through these types of activities that they get to practice their knowledge and use critical thinking skills.
2.) The students taught me how to interact with them. As a graduate student, I interact mostly with my professors and other graduate students, so our topics of conversation sometimes go in directions and use certain jargon that the majority of people don’t understand or don’t care about. By spending an entire school day with middle schoolers, we all had to reorient how we interact with others when talking about topics that we are all very well-versed in. We sometimes forget that our research benefits the public and that we therefore need to approach these topics in a way that is meaningful and interesting for the public. We work for them, so we need to make sure that we include them in our conversations and that our research isn’t just for our own sake.
3.) Building off my second point, it helped me think about how I can make my own research meaningful and pertinent in today’s society. The biggest and most important question that archaeologists gets asked, and one that can be the most difficult to answer, is: So what? Why does this matter? Research for its own sake does nothing for society. In doing this event, I saw students that were highly engaged, had great theories about their kits/sites, and were generally hungry for knowledge. I learned that if one aspect of my personal research (which is how childhood was experienced for the ancient Maya) interested them, then I would have succeeded in part of my research goals. By watching them interact with each other, I took note of how they interacted with the world around them, how they addressed each other, adults, teachers, and us. How did they experience their world and how can I use that to look at ancient childhood and adolescence? Additionally, what similarities can I draw from ancient Maya childhood that I see today?
By teaching these middle schoolers about archaeology, they taught me that I don’t give enough credit to middle schoolers. We sometimes get trapped in our own ivory tower and forget that there is a world below us where most people live and interact. Participating in outreach programs such as this not only benefits the students, but also teaches us as the experts that our expertise is meaningless and useless if we only discuss things amongst ourselves. I hope that we continue to conduct these types of events as I think it is imperative in today’s educational climate. The world needs more bright students to shape our future and it is our job to help make that happen.