TOPS of Santa Clara Valley

Teaching Opportunities  for  Partners  in Science

TOPS volunteers genuinely enjoy working with young people and teaching them fundamental scientific principles.  It is our hope that some of the students will select a scientific or engineering discipline as a career.

For many volunteers, their experience has been one of the most satisfying and rewarding of their careers.


A volunteer typically meets with their teacher-partner before the beginning of the school year to work out the schedule of days that the volunteer will be available.  In addition, the volunteer and teacher discuss the overall plan for the laboratory experiments and demonstrations planned for the first month. This enables the volunteer to prepare the experiments, demonstrations, or lectures that will be given on the day(s) the volunteer will be working at school. It is important for the volunteer to be flexible in the event the teacher must change the lesson plan based on the students’ progress.

New volunteers, particularly those who have not been in a middle school classroom for some time, are advised to spend one or two days observing the classroom activities and the teacher’s style before actually working with the students.

Most volunteers perform experiments and demonstrations one or two days per week in the classroom working with students and another day preparing material in advance. Volunteers often spend additional time preparing material in advance and searching the Internet for interesting demonstrations and experiments.  If a volunteer is working with a demonstration for the first time, the volunteer will be sure to test it in advance of presenting it to the students in the event that minor changes must be made. The same is true of experiments that the students will do themselves; the volunteer tests the experiment first. Sometime the instructions are confusing, so the procedure can be revised by the volunteer in the hope of improving facilitation of the experiment.

The most important factor for success is a good working relationship between the volunteer and the teacher.  Most volunteers describe a high level of competence and dedication among the middle school science teachers they work alongside. However, the preparation of lesson plans, teaching, grading test papers, meeting with other faculty members and school administrators as well as keeping abreast of the changes in state standards and the latest scientific developments put tremendous restraints on their time. Thus, many teachers need and welcome the help of volunteers to assist with their classroom activities.  Some of the help provided by TOPS volunteers include:

    •    Design and building of experimental set-ups that the students will conduct themselves.
    •     Presenting live demonstrations of chemical reactions, emission of light, electrical conductivity, magnetism,                 and other scientific principles

    •     Relating the physical principles that are being taught to real world experiences
    •    Presenting lectures using audio-visual aids (photos, videos, animations, drawings, etc.), typically using a                    personal computer and compact projector
    •    Meeting with individual students and groups of two or three to answer their questions and explain the                        fundamental principles in different ways
    •    Gathering supplies, assembling or repairing lab apparatus, and setting up equipment.

A major goal of the TOPS program is to have students become knowledgeable about how science applies to most of life’s endeavors.  Volunteers strive to relate the scientific principles they teach to the work of machinists, electricians, carpenters, health care specialists, auto mechanics, construction workers, and even food service personnel to name just a few.  It is important that students understand how much “science” these workers need to know to do their jobs safely and successfully.

Volunteers often help organize and assist teachers with after-school science clubs.  This might also include helping to arrange field trips to local science museums, planetariums, and government or industrial research laboratories where students can see scientists at work.  Many large public (eg., NASA, USGS) and private organizations have programs that provide tours of their laboratories and manufacturing facilities.