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What’s the Mileage?

September 25, 2012

The best kind of profession permits you to carry out extra curricular activities you enjoy without acting as a diversion.

While at a conference recently (AAPT), I was presenting material over an astronomy workshop I’d held with a colleague during the summer of 2012 (at the SLL Observatory). The poster had the usual stuff on it: pictures of the facility, demographics of participants, bulleted lists of what we did, etc. And, even though it was located off the beaten path from the bulk of the posters, it got a lot of traffic — no complaints here.

Those who stopped by to visit had great comments and questions. And then it happened, on more than one occasion… I felt like I was out of the loop; like I’d missed some memo on current buzzwords. I was asked by several individuals

“So what mileage did you get out of doing this?”

To be honest, I didn’t know how to respond at the time. The truth is, working with an NWOSU adjunct who is also a member of a local astronomy organization (Starcreek Astronomical Society), we simply came up with the idea while stargazing as something that would be fun to do: apply for a small grant to host an astronomy workshop in rural Oklahoma. (It was a great success, by the way!)

Anyway–since then, I’ve had time to reflect on the question and its broader meaning. Turns out, it’s an incredibly valid question! and we should all consider answering it before taking on a new project or saying ‘yes’ to the next extra curricular activity around the bend.

When it comes to deciding what to do and why, here are two basic factors to consider:

  1. Your professional activities ultimately play a role in things like job security, promotion and tenure.
  2. Extra curricular activities require additional time and will draw from your resources.

While fun and interesting, item 2 above can mean time away from family and hinder fulfilling what’s wrapped up in item 1. Plus, saying “yes” to too many things means you may not be able to complete any of them to the quality you’d like. Not to mention more involvement in things means less “power down” time for you (we all need a little separation from work!).

The best situation one can find oneself in is one where items 1 and 2 above are aligned. Extra curricular activities don’t have to be an added drain/strain. They can be framed in ways that augment the experiences of more than those they were designed to benefit directly.

For example, I help host a local robotics competition (BEST) and and am often asked to launch rockets or do a science demonstration day for area schools. With a little bit of lead time, I get my students involved as much as I can. They help run demonstrations on science safety, judge at the robotics competition and play a role in getting the rocket fleet up and running. And I’m not just pawning off my work to students! Many of them are pre-professional students or future teachers: they need community-based volunteer experiences and public school field experience hours to round out their undergraduate programs of study. In fact, our science majors must complete Science Fair Judging: a service-learning course designed to help majors see the merits of professionals promoting/supporting STEM initiatives among youth. The science fair “extra-curricular” activity has turned into a benchmark experience for all of our majors (biology, chemistry and science education).

The mileage I gain from activities like these is not just in helping students complete their degrees or resume building. One of their most critical values is maintaining relationships and continuity with area HS teachers/schools. This has been a tremendous asset in feeding grant-funded professional development opportunities (see ToPPS, for example).

Long story short, the odometer may not be easy to read in all that we do, but if we keep our wits about us and heed our colleagues’ advice (like backseat drivers!), we’re likely to stay on the right path. And those extra curricular activities? They aren’t always exits away from your final destination. . .

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