Skype a Scientist: Breaking Down The Barriers Between Science and the Public

As with most of society, the COVID-19 virus has changed how ecological scientists have operated over the last few months. For some, field seasons ground to a halt as the requisite travel and cooperative work became impractical, or even dangerous. Productivity dropped for many as working from home or general anxiety took its toll. Others saw it as an opportunity to take science in new and interesting directions.

One such group was the Skype a Scientist team, who science communication initiative has flourished over the last month. The group facilitates informal online meetings between scientists and classrooms, and with a sudden global boom in video conferencing ability, its no wonder that Skype a Scientist has seen a rise in popularity. In light of the current situation, the program has even been expanded to include families, and any group of more than five students.

Why is it So Important?

Participating in the program is a very straightforward experience. A teacher can sign up a class, generally composed for students between 11 and 19 years, for a chat with a scientist from a discipline of their choosing. You can choose to focus in on a study organism, like the squids that Skype a Scientist founder Professor Sarah McAnulty studies, or go for something more general, like climate change or invasive species. Getting that information directly from a scientist gives that added layer of authenticity, as Sarah put it in a recent interview with Short Wave Radio:

“I think you get so many things filtered through various forms of media, and [people] just want something real… I think that’s why our program has been so super successful because we get people direct access to the science.”

But the program is important for more reasons than just the science. Meeting real scientists and getting an idea of what their lives are actually like is increasingly important in a world where historically, scientists have often been portrayed as an elite group, something outside the norm. Meeting a scientist and being able to ask them questions about their life and everyday work helps to break down barriers that have previously been erected.

What’s It Like?

My own experience with Skype a Scientist was enjoyable and challenging, as well as a learning curve that I did not anticipate. I was matched up with a classroom from near Columbus, Ohio, a state that borders the Great Lakes in the USA. I’m a freshwater ecologist, and I had previously visited the Great Lakes for the Char Symposium, so I thought I had the local knowledge bit covered. But I reached out on Twitter for some help anyway.

The first thing I realised is that I’d forgotten how large states in the USA are. Having some passing knowledge of Lake Superior’s freshwater life did not help me relate science to a classroom located 200 kilometres away from the Great Lakes. Luckily, a bunch of freshwater ecologists who HAD studied in the region, including Katie O’Reilly, Zach Nemec and Dr. Solomon David, were able to help me out with some information about local species. For anyone preparing for their first class, I highly recommend reaching out if you’re talking to people from an area you’re not familiar with.

Kids might not too be interested in the intricacies of statistical modelling (yet), but they can relate to a fishing trip (Image Credit: Franklyn Zhao, Pixabay licence)

Kids might not too be interested in the intricacies of statistical modelling (yet), but they can relate to a fishing trip (Image Credit: Franklyn Zhao, Pixabay licence)

The second challenge was the age of the audience. I explain science to my seven year old all the time, with varying degrees of success. But a seven year old has a different level of understanding to a twelve year old, and I didn’t want to patronise anyone. The advice I kept in mind was from scientists who have a lot of experience working with kids, like Dag Hessen and Dani Rabaiotti – essentially that you should never underestimate their curiosity or capacity to soak up knowledge.

Even having prepared well, I’m still not entirely sure whether or not I was able to make the session engaging enough to a middle school class. My colleague Kate Layton-Matthews also signed up for Skype a Scientist, and found this part of the experience particularly rewarding, being surprised by how much entertainment her research stories of chasing geese around the Arctic brought the kids.

“It’s important to remember the rules are different. It’s way easier to catch kids curiosity and enthusiasm but also way easier to lose it.”

Seeing Yourself in Science

One really important facet of the program – which I was particularly ill-quipped for – is the ability to show people from groups who have historically been underrepresented in science that it’s possible for them to build a scientific career for themselves. The Skype a Scientist program makes a real effort to connect students with scientists of every gender, nationality, ethnicity and socio-economic background. Science has historically been portrayed in the media as the purview of old, socially awkward white men (give me another month in quarantine and I’ll fit that bill 100%), and it’s so important to break down that stigma. More diverse workplaces produce better science, and we’ll only build that sort of workplace if people from every background know that a career in science is a possibility. As Sarah puts it:

“A lot of scientists that are now adults working in science never really saw people like them when they were growing up… I hadn’t even met a white woman scientists until I was a sophomore in college. Even in my department I was studying science and we had zero female professors. And that’s as a white woman, so imagine how much worse it is for some other folks. Anything we can do to show people how welcome they can be in science the better.”

Why Should I Sign Up?

  1. It’s eye opening. Communicating your science to kids brings a wealth of challenges with it. It forces you to think about your discipline in new ways. Additionally, kids bring a unique kind of naive insight to something you’ve been studying for years, and can give a helpful reminder of what made you interested in science in the first place.
  2. It humanises science. Even if you’re not from an under-represented group in science, seeing a scientist as a normal person with normal struggles breaks down the barrier between the public and scientists, especially for kids. Don’t wear a white labcoat, whatever you do.
  3. It gives people insight. In an age where science is filtered through so many sources of media, hearing directly from a scientist gives insight not only into the life of a scientist, but into the scientific process itself. Getting science directly from the source is a really insightful experience.

You can find out more about Skype a  Scientist, and sign up at this link, and listen to Sarah McAnulty talk more about the program in her interview with Short Wave Radio.

Title Image Credit: Amanda Mills, USCDCP, CC0, Image Cropped

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is wondering why his kid won’t just accept that although evolution is a thing, that doesn’t mean that humans will evolve wings. You can read more about his research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter @samperrinNTNU.

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