Monday, 21 March 2011

I'm a scientist - the experience so far

A week has passed in "I'm A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here" and a LOT has happened.

So far, I've answered about 175 offline questions, everything from "are you married" to "What causes the nuclear strong force?" and just about every conceivable question in between. Some of these questions are really technical which took me by surprise. I was in two minds about whether to answer such technical questions, but made the effort in the end. After being dubious that the answers would even be read, it turns out that the students asking the technical questions are often the most switched on students - who have already told me they want to study particle physics at university! Well, at least they are voting for me.

The chats are not what I expected. I've worked a lot with students in this age group (11-17) and know what they can be like... but I somehow expected them to have a little more respect for the scientists who have given up their time to chat to them. Perhaps a bit more briefing is needed here? 

The students seem to think we're all in this for the money, which to them seems a life-changing amount but to me seems like small change compared to my previous outreach projects. There seems to be a lack of understanding as to why we're doing this, despite us answering questions along those lines, and I would be surprised if even half of the students have actually read our profiles! 

I asked one student if he had read my profile, and he said "nah, I've got more important things to do". I'm sorry mate, but I've got more important things to do than answer your completely irrelevant question about biology, I'm a physicist! (I know the idea is that the students learn that scientists don't know everything, but I do seem to be one of the only people who have adopted the "I don't google" approach - I answer with what comes to mind. I thought that was the point!)

The chats can be completely random, sometimes I really enjoy them and sometimes I wonder why I bother. I was almost upset the other day when one student just kept asking me the same question which I'd told them I didn't know anything about! But on the other hand, I've had some great questions in the chats about work/life balance and how my research will help people. I'm not sure how much the students get out of the chats, but I hope at least they are inspiring some new questions.

Heading in to week 2 I'm a lot calmer after having a weekend to reflect on the competition. There are a lot of great kids out there asking some truly interesting questions. But I've learned something: I now know for sure that my outreach talents are better used live on stage or on camera than behind a computer. After all, you can't substitute for almost a decade of experience.

And just quietly... I'm really looking forward to having time to do my proper work again!


  1. Hi Suzie, I'm one of the teachers involved in the Space Zone this year. This is my second IAS, and I really hope I can help you out with this. I'm so sad to hear you're not happy with how the chats have worked out, and really disappointed that you don't seem to want to do this again.

    I teach Biology at an FE college - probably two-thirds of my students do not speak English as their first language. The groups that I organise IAS for are BTEC National Diploma groups. This means they study applied sciences, and unfortunately for them that means they miss out on an awful lot of theory. And as you know, particle physics is pretty much just theory at pre-university level. So the poor things simply do not have the knowledge to ask the high-level theoretical questions. This does not mean they are less switched on, just that they have not had the opportunity to learn about this before.

    I can offer a partial explanation for the large number of biology questions from my group: firstly they were in the Evolution Zone last year, so they may on some level be subconsciously "stuck" in a repeat of last year's event, and secondly they were in my biology class at the time. Might it be different tomorrow when I go into a physics class for the other group? Maybe. The other group are also far more interested in physics as a subject. The other group are also mostly boys. It shouldn't make a difference, but stereotypes abound even in this day and age, and physics = boys and biology = girls in a lot of my students' minds.

    One of the great things about IAS is that it removes the scientists from a position of authority, and puts them onto the same level as the students. They love the chance to chat to you all as they would to their friends on MSN, and sometimes that means getting the silly questions as well as the intelligent ones. One of the most important lessons they learn through this is that scientists are normal people just like them.

    Now, that might seem like a no-brainer to anyone who is a scientist or knows one, but these kids have grown up entirely on a diet of lab-coat-wearing-mad-scientists. They genuinely think you guys sit in labs and think all day, before going home and listening to the shipping forecast, alone in the dark. Answer a silly question about who the best Transformer is, what your favourite pop song is, or whether you go down the pub on a Friday night, and you're chipping away at the stereotype. You're not just making science accessible to all, you're making SCIENTISTS accessible too.

    I hope a perspective from the other side of the chat window is helpful. Only a part of IAS, for my students, is about learning about new science. Most of it is interacting with scientists in a less threatening way than they usually are able to.

  2. Hi Julia thanks for your helpful and kind comments! I hope I didn't come across like I wasn't enjoying the experience at all - I am, but I was just trying to get across my frustration with some of the shortcomings of communicating online. Perhaps I'll follow this up with another post.
    The perspective from your side was very helpful as (from my side) it's very difficult to know what kind of students I'm talking to! Communication is a two-way thing so if I don't have any information about the students it makes it very hard for me!

    If the students spent the whole time asking who my favourite Transformer is and whether I go to the pub I'd LOVE it, it's actually the more factual questions (that the students could google themselves in 2 seconds) that have been the tiring and more frustrating part.

    Well, another chat in 2 mins time, so back to it...

  3. I hope that my factual questions were not frustrating but rather thought provoking. I thought you would be getting bored of simple questions about going to the pub etc. and want some complicated science to explain! I think we had some good discussions.

    I did read every answer to my questions and am very grateful that you took the time to think about them. Some of those questions had been bugging me for years!

    You should definitely should have won, Suzie! I missed you on the last day. :( I just wish I could've stayed for another half hour in the chat on Thursday.
    (Feel free to answer my question on cold fusion!)

  4. Freddie - your questions were ones that definitely couldn't be "googled in two seconds" and were definitely thought provoking! Thanks :-)