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Science Communication

I’m a scientist, get me out of here – or not

Opinion | Researchers
I’m a scientist, get me out of here – or not

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, ‘I'm a scientist, get me out of here’ is an outreach program that connects students with scientists online, so they can ask them whatever comes to mind. The online media breaks geographic barriers and nurtures boldness in students, to encourage students to see scientists in a more friendly and human manner. In doing so, the organizers hope to spur up some budding science careers.

Small, bushy haired man with glasses, brainy, socially awkward with a lab coat over his shoulders… picture a scientist yet? Yet, you have it all wrong, and I’m a scientist, get me out of here is proving it to young students by connecting them with real life scientists so they can ask all the questions they want. A unique way for live online myth busting and encouraging science careers. 

Born from a democratic engagement project with a sprinkle of science, I’m a scientist, get me out of here breaks all stereotypes around researchers. Funded by the Wellcome trust, this online student stem enrichment activity connects, year after year, in real time students with scientists across the UK and the globe. Victim of its success, the project has spread worldwide to Vietnam, USA, Kenya, Ireland, Spain, and Australia.

Each scientist fills out a profile about their work, their background and, most importantly, about more personal queries - what is their favorite color, their favorite food, or music? And although these questions might seem trivial, their impact is quite astonishing on children. The students are taken online by their teachers to read these profiles and they are invited to ask each scientist any question they want and vote for the one they prefer. At the end of the two-week long interactions, the most popular scientist earns £500 to spend on a stem communication project. 

“The experience is special and unique,” explains Shane McCracken, the founder and initiator of the project. “The key to its success is accessibility and equality that the online media facilitates. Being online means that geography isn’t creating a barrier to participation, which is an issue, in the UK at least.” Indeed, students are twice as likely to be visited by university scientists if their school is less than 15 mins away from a university. “So half the kids, get half the scholar visits, just because of physical distances. It is not fair.”

Online activity not only creates geographic equality, it also establishes equality within the classroom. Generally, the same 10 to 15% of students ask questions and interact in school engagement programs. Often those that are most confident and eloquent tend to ask questions that the context demands. “Being online and student led, every kid gets an equal voice.” Explains Shane McCracken. “We usually find that 90% of the kids in the class end up participating. And all of them get a response from a scientist.”

Because, the students get to ask questions that are personally relevant to them, and vote for their favorite scientist, I’m a scientist turns the brainy, inaccessible, researcher into a normal person. “We encourage the scientists to talk about things they like and about themselves as people rather than about their work. It is all about showing them as average humans,” added Shane McCracken. “If the students see them as people, it brakes the invisible pedestal that might exist, and they are more likely to feel that they can be a scientist too”. 

However, the children are not the only benefactors from this interaction. “We hadn’t realized how much the scientists were going to take away personally by engaging in that way with the students. It was a massive and pleasant surprise,” is thrilled to say Shane McCracken. This was true for all the volunteers. Again, because of the online factor, the participating scientist doesn’t have to be a performer to take part. So even the most introverted scientists can share without feeling exposed, worried about stuttering or how they look. “It is wonderful to see people, that are not natural performers take part and just connect with the young people so well.” All in all, both scientists and students experience a lovely time.

Starting your own science communication project can be challenging, but Shane McCracken offers three major tips. The first, is to make sure that there is purpose for the audience. “So much science communication is all about the scientist or the science and the audience are just expected to participate because it is science and it is great. That is not enough, unless you really want to reach people that are already engaged.” It is also important your activity is designed for all the people involved so that it is easy, enjoyable and has a purpose for everyone. “For I’m a scientist, we make sure things are easy for the students and schools, but also for the scientists. We do everything for them and we provide them with everything so, they are spending all their time with engagement, not logistics, traveling, waiting.”

And lastly, don’t belittle online engagement. “There is a tendency to think that being there in person, helps you better connect, but in reality, online interactions have got strengths which go beyond that. Kids are really comfortable online, they don’t have to worry about talking face to face. It builds confidence. Elements of online are actually better than face to face engagement.” Good luck with the adventure.

This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

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