When K-12 teachers assign students to contact experts


I’m super-enthusiastic about K-12 science education, and working with K-12 teachers and students*. When a student wants to talk science with me, I’m over the moon. That doesn’t mean I’m as drunk as a cat on catnip whenever a K-12 student emails me a question.

I don’t get a deluge of email from K-12 students, but they trickle in at a steady rate.  I don’t think of it as a drag on my time. Most of them bother me for other reasons.

Most — actually, probably all — of these students are contacting me because their teacher required them to contact an expert. Usually, the students write to me that they are contacting me as a required part of an assignment. I think it’s indicative of poor teaching on the part of their teachers. I think the students are receiving a poor lesson about how to do academic research.

Nearly all of the questions I get are from middle- or high-school students, which can — and should — be easily answered with a visit to a library, or by a few informed minutes on the internet. Or with a visit to a reference librarian.

Here is what I typically do: I send the student a link to a book in their own local public library, or to a website that provides the information they need (typically, a top-hit wikipedia page). I politely write that if they have any questions about what they’ve read, then they can ask me. I have never, ever, heard back under these circumstances. Not even a thank you.

I don’t ever get contacted by university students to answer these kinds of questions, not even those from my own university! University students are doing higher level work, but are not being sent off by their instructors to consult with experts. But this is something that high school students are being assigned on a regular basis. That does not compute. While university instructors are training their students how to do research, some high school teachers are sending their students off to get the answers from experts without having to crack open a book on their own.

Their teachers are showing their students that a routine part of learning about a new topic is to contact a university professor who is an expert on the topic. This is not the way the world should work. For example, I just started reading some Jane Austen for the first time (as a progression following the amazing Aubrey/Maturin series). I’m getting really fascinated by a bunch of things about Austen, and I have a bunch of questions about Austen and her times. I’d like to know new facts and also want to hear expert opinions. But I’m not emailing professors of history and literature for this kind of thing. There is plenty of writing and scholarship on the topic. When I want to learn about Jane Austen and the England of 200 years ago, there is the internet and there are books.

Likewise, if a student is required to ask me how many kinds of ants there are, or why there are more species in the tropics than in California, there is the internet and there are books. I don’t take these questions as a personal offense. But the educator part of me is worried that there are teachers who are condoning this kind of research.

If a member of the public has a general question about ants or rainforests — or anything biological, I’m enthusiastically all over this. This is important outreach. These things are uncommon enough that it’s no problem at all, and in fact a joy. But when a student asks me a question as a part of a course assignment, and they haven’t done any basic reading before contacting me, well then that’s just shoddy academic practice by either the student, or the teacher, or both of them.

I sometimes get inquires that aren’t even close to my expertise, other than the fact that I’m an ecologist or an entomologist. The most recent one falls into this category:

Professor McGlynn,
My name is [redacted] and I am a senior at [Elite Public High School with stratospheric test scores]. As one of my final assignments as a high school student I am required to write a research paper on a topic of my choice. I chose the topic of de-extinction. I’d like to have the chance to interview you on the ecological and environmental effects of reintroducing an extinct species to an ecosystem. The interview would be no longer than fifteen minutes and would need to be recorded. If you’re interested please let me know dates that would work.
Thanks for your time,

On the face of it, this sounds totally normal and this is definitely an outlier. But I do find this weird, because I’m not an expert on de-extinction whatsoever. I’ve never written or researched this topic at all. Also, the student said that it “would need to be recorded.” He said he had to write a paper. I’m assuming the need to record the interview was a requirement of his teacher. As I’m not an expert on de-extinction, all he would get from me is a set of opinions that I’ve formed as an ecologist, but not nearly as well-thought out as the opinions that have already been shared in print by other ecologists who have thought more about and worked on this question. But I wrote back and thought it’d be fine, so I made a window in my office hours for him. (My department schedules eight undergraduate advising appointments for all tenure-line faculty each week. I thought I could sandwich him in among those.)

I’ve tentatively scheduled you for next wednesday.  If you could send me a copy of the questions in advance, that would be appreciated.  I have you down tentatively for 1:30 pm on 04 March. You might want to be aware that this isn’t my field, though I am an ecologist, so if you’re looking or an expert on this you’re not exactly barking up the right tree.
dr mcglynn
Then he wrote back:
Thank you so much for getting back to me. Wednesday would be very difficult for me though. I have until March 10th to complete the interview, if there are any other times, that would be great. As for being not being an expert, that is completely fine. The questions are more opinion based and theoretical. I saw that you specialize in ants, if it makes it easier extinct ant species would be fine. I would like to talk to you about:
if the species brought back would act similar to an invasive species?
could bringing back an extinct species be beneficial and in what ways?
What ecological/environmental impacts would occur?
What is your opinion on de-extinction?
In what ways could de-extinction be detrimental?

I understand that scheduling him in the middle of a weekday might interfere with school hours, but outside school hours don’t work well for my schedule, either. Also, the way he wrote this email suggested to me that he didn’t really care about my expertise per se. He just need to talk to some ecologist, and it was okay that I wasn’t an expert. If that’s the case, why would he need to interview me at all? I am making the assumption is that his teacher required it. That’s not a reason for me. So, I punted:

My schedule is pretty tight and I don’t see what you would have to benefit from interviewing me in particular on this topic. If you’re looking for opinions from experts about deextinction, there is absolutely no shortage of them in on blogs and other media.

good luck,

Terry McGlynn

scholar   lab   blog

I have to admit, if this student were attending any one of the many struggling public schools in our area, I’d work a lot harder to squeeze this student in. That would be an opportunity to help and inspire someone. In this case, the way I read between the lines, the only thing that this particular student would gain is the ability to meet his teacher’s requirement for an interview. If he wanted answers to those questions, then I pointed out to him that an interview with some professor who is an ecologist wouldn’t be necessary. I’d rather take the same amount of time and effort to swing by a high school biology classroom in a high-need school on the way to or from work some day, to talk about science.

This phenomenon is tied to social class. The majority of students in public school in the US are living in poverty, and only 10% of all students in the US attend private schools. However, the majority of the students who have contacted me are attending expensive private schools. Those that aren’t at private schools are in public schools with well-endowed districts that regularly send students to prestigious 4-year universities.

These students are being trained by their teachers that they are entitled to have access to expert information without having to do any research on their own. You don’t have to read a book if you can just contact the expert who wrote the book. The teachers that are training the next generation of wealthy elites are training them how to take academic shortcuts. What teachers think that creating this kind of assignment is a good idea? What, exactly, are they thinking? I imagine the teachers are attempting to teach the students good research skills. I imagine the teachers are picturing a high-level activity in which students contact experts with a non-trivial question after having done some research. But I honestly don’t know. It’s just so bizarre to me.

These students, in the upper social class, are learning a wholly inappropriate lesson – that publicly-funded professors are there to answer their basic questions about science in lieu of going to the trouble of opening up a goddamn book. I’m really curious how often this happens to people depending on what kind of university they work at. Are professors at prestigious universities hit up more often because they have higher visibility, or are they less likely to be approached because their position is more intimidating and students don’t feel that they should waste their time? I honestly have no idea.

If you’re a student who is reading this post after getting this kind of crappy assignment, then I don’t have a recommendation for you. You have my condolences that you have a teacher who gave you this crappy assignment. I suppose you could anonymously email them a link to this post, though that’s unlikely to change anybody’s mind.

If you want to ask me a question that genuinely requires my expertise? Bring it! I’d love it! If you are a student doing an assignment for a class, and are about to ask me a question that can easily be answered by visiting your local public library or on the internet, then please spare both of us the trouble and learn to find information independently.

Carl Zimmer, as an amazing science-writer-guy, reported getting hit by these requests all of the time, often by those who were assigned some of his writing as part of a school assignment. He seems to get students who aren’t assigned to contact him by the teacher, but those who just don’t want to do and think about the assigned reading. He ended up making a page specifically for teachers and students to deal with this type of issue. It has lots of helpful information, and includes the following line: “Please note that Zimmer cannot respond individually to emails from students asking for help on class assignments.”

Do you get these kinds of emails? Do you give the students the fish they’re looking for or do you help teach them how to fish?



*Just to let you know that I’m not anti-kid, and not a slouch when it comes to K-12 engagement. On a personal level, I’m probably two sigma above mean with respect to volunteer time for public schools. Professionally, I’ve been an involved Co-PI on a handful of major projects training current and future K-12 science teachers, including an urban teacher residency program, Noyce Scholars, Master Teacher Fellows, and the California Math Science Teacher Initiative. And one of the hats that my university placed on my head is to be the science faculty member who advises pre-service teachers. I’m just sayin’, I’m both an advocate and a hard worker for quality public education for children. And I don’t think that spoon-feeding them otherwise easily-accessed answers in the process of researching a topic is in the best interest of their education.

14 thoughts on “When K-12 teachers assign students to contact experts

  1. Don’t these teachers and students know academics write things down so we wont’ be bothered as we write more things down? :-P.

    I haven’t faced this yet, but agree with you here. I routinely contact experts/authors I like on Twitter, but not to ask them a question. Most often, I say “your work is awesome” (not exactly in those words usually). Sometimes I’ll share something they might be interested in, but likely are already well aware of.

    But if a student has done their homework and asks a really relevant question about research/hypotheses/solving an experimental problem, I’d be more than happy to reply.

  2. Yes I get that sort of request quite often – I usually refer them to a relevant text book or even Wiki page if I want them to realize how lazy they are being. Sometimes though you get one that has obviously thought a bit more about it and has some structured questions – in those cases I send them a relevant pdf so that they can do the research to answer the questions themselves.

  3. I suspect that there might be several things going on here.

    One is that the teacher thinks the student would come up with relevant and non-trivial questions. That is, IMO, wishful thinking, but some folks have wells of hope I can’t match.

    The other is that teachers don’t understand that research skills aren’t inborn and that kids will take shortcuts. Especially if the teacher involved doesn’t explain carefully why they should contact an expert.

    I’m a journalist and contacting experts is a big part of what I do. Why do I do it when there are papers? Because I am not an expert and want to be dead sure I understand what I am reading.

    But a lot of high school kids and younger don’t really get that yet — because they haven’t been told that that’s the way it works. Thankfully, my teachers and professors always asked for footnotes and such.

    To your point about (social) class: with privileged kids there’s the type As who really make an effort, and the types who are smart but not really interested. Since their whole lives have been one huge shortcut with people telling them how special they are, it’s no surprise they behave as they do. If you are smart enough that you don’t have to try hard and nothing else in your life commands your attention, then it’s sometimes difficult to empathize with other people who have stuff to do that does require effort and attention. If your family is relatively wealthy and you are on your way to a decent college almost as default, the stakes are low, so why bother?

  4. I wonder if it would make more sense if we actually knew the point and rationale behind the assignment. I agree with jesseemspak, when I’m wearing my journalist hat, my job is to contact experts and put together a story using their quotes, and there’s a big difference between reading a technical report or paper and talking to a human being. They might even know the answers to the questions but want to hear your take on your own words. Maybe the students are supposed to develop a diverse set of skills for doing research, both reading and contacting experts? I mean, it sounds like they might be bungling it, but they’re kids…Another potential goal of the assignment could be to humanize experts and scientists–always a good thing. Anyway I hear your frustrations and it isn’t an efficient use of your time to disseminate information in this way, but I’m just wondering if there are laudable goals that we don’t know about here.

  5. Have started getting a few of these a year, including one a few days ago from a private school student. Very helpful to see your response since I’ve been trying to figure out how to reply.

  6. As Carina said, the goal of these assignments is often times not to learn about the topic of the paper that is being written, but rather to learn the process of writing something based on interviews, and to use the proper structure in writing such a paper. The actual content and information is often secondary, or even totally irrelevant. One big clue is if the student insists on recording a verbal interview. This means that part of the lesson is how to interview someone, record it and transcribe it. If the goal was simply to gather information, the student would simply email the questions to you for a written answer.

  7. I don’t know who you are but I love and respect you!

  8. Great post, thanks. I just got a similar request from an undergraduate class taught by a colleague of mine. The idea, which I applaud, is that they understand “the people behind the papers.” And the colleague asks that I answer questions they’ve posed as a “survey.” Problem is, it’s not a survey, it’s a series of open-ended questions like “what are the requirements for becoming a scientist” and a whole lot of others, some more related to the paper I wrote that they read and some not.

    I am stymied about how to proceed. On the one hand, I do like that they are being encouraged to think about science as a process. On the other, answering even a few of the questions will be hugely time-consuming and I am not sure that knowing whether or not I wanted to be a scientist when I was a child is useful. And some really need some in-depth responses to be at all helpful, like “Based on predominantly white males becoming well-known in science fields, do you think race or gender plays a part in science?”

    I dunno. Maybe if I’d spent the time answering just one question instead of posting here I’d be done . . .

  9. I find this used to be more common 10-15 years ago, when Internet access for K-12 teachers and students was still relatively new. I still do get these e-mails, though. They usually trickle in one at a time, but I’ve received a dozen or more of these e-mails simultaneously. This is because they were all from students in the same class who were told to do this by the same teacher. It may be because, here at Fresno State, I’m the only professional astronomer working in the Central Valley of California: I don’t know. I ‘ve also never bothered to find out anything about the social class of the students who do this.

    Experience has shown me how NOT to handle this. DO NOT e-mail any of the students back and ask them, as politely as possible, please ask their teacher to show them how to look things up in a library or otherwise do research themselves. No matter how polite you try to be, it will be interpreted as a surly, “DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK, KID!”

    What can happen next is that the teacher will, without your permission, forward your e-mail to your boss. My boss gave me a right raking over the coals for it. It still baffles me, since he has a kid, about whom he’s told me he’s “trying not to spoil.” I did try to give a polite answer to what I think isn’t a very polite question.

    How I wanted to respond to my boss and this teacher was to promise that I would never, ever, EVER answer e-mail from K-12 students, EVER again. I have no training in K-12 education, and my first allegiance is and must be to my own undergraduate and graduate students here at Fresno State. Other experience has shown that whenever I interact with K-12 students in any way, particularly with wealthy ones, if the result is anything less than immediate, fulsome, and resounding success, the chances are good that I’ll be accused of damaging the students for life. Sorry, but if I can, I’ll take a pass on that.

    Terry’s solution, of telling these students to go read something easily available and then offering help if they have any questions about that they’ve read, is much better. I’ve happened upon this solution myself. I’ve also never heard anything back from these students, but it beats being screamed at.

  10. One of my high school teachers made us do this. I really did not want to. I fully agree with this post. I found all the sources I need in textbooks and online.

    I will say though to be careful of sending this message back to the teacher. There might be an air of importance what with “experts” talking down to K12 teachers. As in, sorry I can’t, your teaching is ineffectual, and I’m an expert in my field.

    Also your point about the public schools doesn’t seem fair. I went to a well endowed public school. I understand the beef against me and a lot of my privileged classmates. But there was definitely low income in the mix of my classes. It’s not all one income level.

  11. Sadly, it looks as if carl zimmer’s note to teachers has disappeared.

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