05 June 2011
By Blanka Sengerová
How do you begin to engage one of the most difficult-to-engage audiences and get them to take an interest in science and become scientifically literate engaged citizens in due course? “I’m a scientist, get me out of here!” may be one of the options, as panellists Shane McCraken and Sophia Collins of Gallomanor and Dan Hannard, a Leeds-based physics teacher, aimed to convince us during the interactive conference workshop.
Firstly, what is “I’m a scientist...”? In a video-explanation, an excited participating pupil explained. Scientists, ranging from graduate students through to professors, are linked up with classes of school students, ranging in age from Year 7 though to Year 12 and in ability from the top set students all the way to the less academical ones. The two groups interact online, with students able to ask the scientist any question they like, something new to them as in most lessons they are the ones asked questions, not the ones to set them. Scientists do not have to travel anywhere, because they can answer questions from their own computer screen, in their own time. Additionally, there are live chats, where scientists and students are scheduled to be online at the same time and the conversation can occur in real time.
The panel gave workshop participants a taste of what a live chat session would feel like by linking up to five past scientist participants, one in the Antarctic, another in the jungle and yet another in a industrial research lab, and allowing members of the audience to ask them not only about the experience of taking part in “I’m a scientist...”, but about all sorts of other things. It felt chaotic, but cleverly brought across the excitement and interactivity of the communication form and how it must feel to the students. “Why is the sky blue?” and “What’s it like to type in gloves?” were amongst the many questions raised.
When questions are answered, both in live chats and in longer question formats, the students decide which scientists get to leave the event and which stay on. Some “grown-ups” may scorn this celebrity-big-brother-audience-voting style of decision making, but this is what the current school kids know and associate with so it puts science learning into the context of something they know. Once again, it is entirely up to the pupils to decide who gets to stay and who has to go, empowering them and engaging them by making it exciting.
Dan Hannard, involved with the project since its inception at the chalk face as a Leeds-based physics teacher, gave a very enthusiastic address. He likened science communicators to the mouthpiece of science and teachers to the receiver, arguing that sometimes there is a bit of a disconnect between the two. “I’m a scientist’’, in his eyes, is a great way of matching these two ups, with the added advantage that it makes for engaged pupils, but not at the expense of dumbing down the science. It wasn’t just the usual suspects that were coming up with questions for the scientists; in the online environment, the usually quiet and subdued students at the back of the class were suddenly asking well argued questions, giving a voice to those who at other times feel too intimidated to speak. Importantly, the project worked with all abilities, from those aiming at Oxbridge university places to those who were doing NVQs and would not be continuing their academic careers. The question was raised of whether the students would not go for the shallow qualities when voting out scientists – is she good looking, does he come from a poor family, does their project sound cool just because they’re based at the space station – but Hannard argued that in his experience the pupils cut through these surface qualities very effectively, concentrating on whether the scientist was a good explainer, how significant their scientific contribution was and similar criteria.
What an exciting way of getting school kids interested in science – it has certainly made me want to try and take part as a scientist!
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