What better way to get scientists involved in public engagement than to pit them against each other for extra funding?
In March 2020 I took part in ‘I’m a Scientist, get me out of here’, an online platform connecting scientists with high school students across the UK. Students chat with scientists about their science questions and the students vote for their favourite scientist. Plus, there’s a competitive element, the winner receives a £500 grant for their own public engagement activity!
There were 14 ‘zones’ which grouped scientists in similar research areas. I was placed into the food zone, along with a senior lecturer, an assistant professor and a post-doctoral researcher. Each day students tested our knowledge (and speed-typing) in quick-fire chat sessions. Students could also visit the website to see our profiles, showing information about our science, hobbies and interests. In the first week alone, 3,272 school students logged into the website to ask questions.
In every chat session, there was a mix of light-hearted conversation, funny questions and those ‘big’ science questions like ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’. I was also asked very insightful questions about my research into entomopathogenic fungi (or insect-killing fungi). We discussed the benefits of using fungi in crop protection and whether these species could cause infections in humans too. I really enjoyed the variety of questions as I often get engrossed in the complicated specifics of my research topic, but they made me step back and think of the bigger picture.
I spoke with students from year 7 to 12 (11-18 years old), so I needed to tailor my answers to each group. In the quick-fire chat sessions, there wasn’t a lot of time to ponder before the next question and I found that keeping things simple was the biggest challenge. If we ran out of time, unanswered questions were posted on a forum where we could continue the discussion with those that were particularly interested in finding out more about our work life.
This engagement activity was really fun! During ‘I’m a Scientist, get me out of here’, I was able to chat to a bigger audience than ever before whilst in the comfort of my office (and my garden once the Covid-19 lockdown was enforced). This allowed me to really get into the activity without the nerves of public speaking, which is a drawback for many people involved in other public engagement activities. Unfortunately, I did not win the grand prize, but I did reach the final and I am eagerly waiting by the door to receive my ‘I’m a Scientist, get me out of here’ mug!
The whole point of the exercise is to break down the barrier between students and scientists. We are not all-knowing and on more than one occasion I was honest in saying that I don’t know the answer. I also learnt lots of interesting facts during our chat sessions, so hopefully the students did too and gained something from our discussions! This would seem to be true, as recent research conducted by Dr Jen DeWitt, an Associate Senior Research Fellow on the core Science Capital team (King’s College London), found that the ‘I’m a Scientist’ scheme improved science literacy in schools, highlighted that science is relevant to everyday life, demonstrated the transferability of science qualifications and let students get to know the people working in science related jobs. These resources are important pillars for young people in order for them to engage with science and study science subjects further, as shown in the science capital teaching approach (Godec, King and Archer, 2017).
Ellie is a PhD student working with the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International, Warwick University and BASF SE. Her project aims to identify where entomopathogenic fungi and chemical pesticides can be combined for effective and reliable control of whitefly. She enjoys sharing her passion for science through talks, activities and on her personal blog.
Godec, S, King, H and Archer, L (2017) ‘The Science Capital Teaching Approach: engaging students with science, promoting social justice’, UCL Institute of Education: London, UK. UCL Institute of Education. Available on the UCL website.