"Can you help me with my report?"

Lately, I’ve been getting an increasing number of e-mail requests from middle school and high school students, whose teachers have assigned them projects that require them to find experts and ask questions about their chosen research topics. At a certain time of year, I actually get more of these kinds of questions in my e-mail than I get from my actual undergraduate students, the ones who are paying me to answer questions. So it’s a lot.

It turns out I’m far from alone in this trend. Carl Zimmer has also been getting a lot of similar requests from students, and he doesn’t have time to answer them, either: “An open letter to science students and science teachers”.

Its great that you are looking for new ways for your students to do research and learn about science. But having them send emails to scientists and writers has failure stitched into its very concept. Writers are perpetually scrambling to meet deadlines and pitch new stories. Scientists have full plates as well, between their research, their eternal quest for the next grant, and their teaching. To answer a single email from a studenteither in the form of a long list of questions or just an open-ended plea for helptakes a lot of time. We may respond to the first few emails we get, but as they keep pouring in, we tend to burn out. And the more popular this becomes as a pedagogical tool, the more emails students will be sending to scientists and writers. And that makes people burn out even faster. It doesnt seem fair to the students for their grade to depend on whether they get a reply from their email. Even the most polite email may land in the inbox of someone who decided long ago never to respond to such requests.

I want to reinforce what Carl has written. I really like to answer student questions, and some of my most delightful exchanges have been with talented high school students who genuinely have developed an interest in paleoanthropology. I was one of those high school students once. In the days long before e-mail, I wrote letters to NASA requesting information about their programs and technologies, and used the agency’s informative materials in my reports and public speaking. But NASA has paid public outreach specialists. I don’t. I give students a lot of credit for having the courage to write and ask original questions, but when I get form letters by e-mail, they have to go unanswered.

The great thing is that there are better ways for teachers to get experts involved in classrooms. As Carl suggests, many scientists make time for outreach, and anthropologists are more accessible than most. It is usually the best idea to make a relationship with a nearby university or college, where experts might not be exactly on topic but will often be eager to establish a longer-term relationship with your school – and may even have research opportunities for your students. Many experts, like me, will make themselves available by Skype for remote classroom interactions where many students can benefit.

And with the upcoming MOOC, we’ll have a lot of open access materials for teachers to use in classrooms, including interviews with dozens of experts that focus on just the kinds of questions students are most likely to ask. It’s a great time for getting more expert insight into high school and middle school classrooms, both in terms of personal relationships with local experts and in terms of public content!