It was a tense, nervous fortnight of probing questions and judgemental teenagers, but I’m a Scientist, get me out of here may well be the future of science communication in Europe.
I’m a Scientist (IAS) is a science engagement activity with a difference. Not only does it put secondary school students in contact with real, live scientists, but it gives those students the opportunity to evict the scientists from the event.
It’s a cross between a careers open-day and Big Brother, with a bit of I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here thrown in. Despite the daunting name, it was a fun two weeks – certainly the most fun I’ve had communicating science.
It seems that some of the students like it too. As one student wrote after the 2010 event: “I’m a scientist is a website aimed at all teenagers – interested in science or not (but believe me, by the time you finish the project, science will have taken over your brain and made you love it for the rest of your life)”. High praise indeed!
The concept is simple: classes of students are assigned to zones on the IAS website and are invited to communicate with scientists in that zone via live group chats or by posting a science question to be answered. And they don’t hold back with those questions! I answered about 250 questions in my time on IAS and 29 fellow scientists would have answered a similar amount.
I thought the questions asked fell into a few main areas:
- Questions about my own research area
- Questions about being a scientist: Do you have a social life? Do you work long hours? etc.
- Questions about the sun/earth/universe ending (possibly due to Prof. Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe series going to air during the event)
- Questions about fantastic biological battles: Who would win in a fight – a 30ft grizzly bear or a giant squid?
- Questions about our preferences for Xbox, Playstation, etc.
- General questions about all kinds of science topics.
Despite the huge range of questions asked and the spurious nature of some of them, the event allowed for a real connection between scientist and young person which I doubt could be replicated without the internet acting as an ice-breaker.
Students may be unwilling to ask the sort of open, honest questions in public that they do online. Many students followed up original questions with further points, allowing for real, substantive conversations to develop between students and scientists.
In all, 2,300 students from 88 schools took part in 6 zones, communicating with 30 scientists (5 per zone) and they managed to ask over 2,800 questions in total and take part in 128 live chats.
With £500 up for grabs for the ‘winning’ scientist in each zone, the students were able to vote for who they thought should get the money – to be spent on science outreach activities. With a recognised need across Europe to encourage more students to study science, this type of event could not happen at a more opportune time.
Although a recent UK survey found that science was the most popular subject in school for teenagers aged 14-16 and 81% of those surveyed were “amazed” by the achievements of science, the people responsible for the survey, Britain’s Department of Business Innovation & Skills, admit that the data is not representative. The 14-16 year-old surveyed were chosen from an online ‘Leaner Panel’ which itself, was self-selecting.
After IAS last year, 91% of students felt they knew more about what scientists do and 77% knew more about how science works. As one student commented:
“I found it very surprising because I used to have very stereotypical views on scientists and how they are very boring and are like freaky nerds. But now i have found out that they are not boring and they are very passionate about what they do. They enjoy themselves and have fun as scientists, which makes me even more fonder of doing something which is science related towards the future”
If this is indicative of the type of effect IAS has on students opinions of science, then the two weeks spent in front of my computer will have been thoroughly worthwhile!
IAS are currently looking for scientists to take part in their next event in June. For more details, see http://imascientist.org.uk/.