Are You A Scientist? Get In Here.

For the last two weeks I’ve been answering questions and chatting with schoolkids as part of I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here! and today I discovered I was the last scientist standing in my zone, and I’ve won funding to put towards science communication! IAS 2012 was a really great experience, and if you’re a scientist – in any field, doing any form of work – you should think about taking part.

Below, I’ve written a bit about the event, some misconceptions I had before taking part, and why I think it’s important you sign up.

The key idea behind the IAS event is that scientists and students talk directly to one another, with nothing in between bar a moderator filtering out the odd question here or there. Even the moderation queue tries to be as liberal as possible, to encourage the students to ask questions about anything at all. I’ve talked about pooping, the existence of god, and whether my research is more important than saving lives – and the breadth of questions is crucial because it lets the students be more honest with their questions (and scientists, similarly, are encouraged to be as honest as possible in their responses).

For some students this was clearly an opportunity to ask questions that they felt couldn’t be as easily asked to people they knew personally. We were asked about whether religion can be reconciled with science, why evil exists, why people test on animals, and whether cancer can be inherited through genes. Others asked us about career paths and training – something that felt particularly important for the students inquiring about computing, since there are so few resources in the UK to help students explore an interest in the subject. But we’ll come onto that later.

Before I started I had a bunch of ideas about how the fortnight was going to work. Most importantly, is that what you do as a researcher is less important than who you are. Whilst I did get some questions about artificial intelligence (including one which knocked me off my feet) there were far more questions about what science in general is like, where we came from, and the bulk of science questions were about stuff no-one was an expert in anyway. Lots of time was spent scrabbling through Google and writing responses clearly for the students, which was just as valuable and probably made us seem a lot more human too.

I mention this, though, because I imagine people are put off if they feel what they do is too obscure to be interesting to people. Scientists are interesting, especially to school students. Showing students the breadth of science, and how focused research gets, is very valuable. Don’t put off signing up for that reason.

Other than teaching it at school, the general treatment of science today is pretty bad. There’s a bunch of factors feeding into this. Media representation is one large problem (tackled by a great student question here).  The complete lack of communication between scientists and the public is another. Computer Science prominently suffers from a lack of support from the education system, leaving future citizens unaware of the field, and ill-equipped to deal with a technological world beyond logging into Facebook.

Thankfully, there are some wonderful people out there working to try and change this sort of thing. Code Club is a great example – a volunteer organisation that is rapidly co-ordinating a nationwide scheme of programming classes for primary schools in the UK. Watching the growth of the scheme has been amazing (you can sign up to be a volunteer tutor here) and I can’t wait to see the results of their first sessions. Code Club’s system of bite-size tutoring slots proves that you can make a difference to the way science is perceived without making it the sole focus of your every waking hour. And I’m A Scientist is no different.

So. Go fill in the form right now. You might not even get selected, right? Right. Should that happen, though, you’ll only give up a couple of hours a day for a fortnight, answering the best questions anyone will ever ask you, and being genuinely heartened by the passion shown by the generation that we’re told so often is disinterested and apathetic.

When I talk to other scientists about how they got into their job or field, the most common story (and one I share myself) is that they weren’t really interested in science until they were in their late teens, when they suddenly realised what they were missing. I’m A Scientist is an opportunity for you to give students that moment of epiphany, and to give them a chance to see a side of science not full of memorising equations and drawing endless diagrams. Please sign up, and tell people you know to sign up.

Thanks to the Niobium Zone scientists, especially Blanka and Emma who worked ridiculously hard to answer a lot of the questions the rest of us had no idea about, and thanks to the moderators and organisers for making everything run so smoothly. I’ll be posting updates about what I’m spending the £500 science communication money on as soon as I can – I hope it lives up to the students’ expectations!

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