Monday, 28 March 2011

Reflections on "I'm a Scientist"

“I’m a Scientist” finally ended last Friday with victory for Adam in the Space zone. (Commiserations to Sheila, a valiant effort). I managed to last until the second last eviction in the Space Zone (making me third in our zone), and I think it’s about time I reflected on my experience in the competition and some lessons I learned from it.

Sorry all, this is going to be a long one...

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d just like to say that overall I have learned many things from this competition and while I had my ups and downs, overall I think it was a positive experience. There were times when I really did get a buzz from it, when students thought my research was great or when they realised that I’m just a normal person – especially so with some of the female students who realised that I was just as ‘girly’ as them!

From the feedback I’ve had from teachers it is a hugely positive thing for students, so what I say below is trying to be fair and balanced. I’m writing this the week after the event after some reflection. These are the lessons I learned which will help to inform me in my future science communication activities. I hope they might be useful to others!

Before you read below… I get that it’s a point of the competition that students learn that scientists don’t know everything and that we specialise in our own area. I also get that the un-confrontational nature of online communication helps the quieter students to ask questions that they might not otherwise, which I think is fantastic.

I came into this event without many expectations, but I’ve come away from it having learned a lot about online communication and my priorities as both a scientist and a communicator. I enjoyed it and for that reason I’d like to thank to the organisers for what is a hugely popular and successful event.

Lesson 1: Be realistic about time commitment

On the surface, two hours a day didn’t seem like a huge time commitment, and I thought that I’d do one half-hour chat a day (in my ‘break’ time) and fit in the questions from students in the evening. But let me tell you right now, it doesn’t work like that. To have any chance of really engaging with the students I found I needed to dedicate as much time as possible. This was no surprise as others have pointed out, but this meant attending every chat I could (though I didn’t attend all of them) and answering every offline question.

Forget about having a life in the evenings, I was on the couch with my laptop dredging up long-forgotten facts from my undergraduate days. Any less and I have no doubt that I’d have been evicted first round!

Lesson 2: The pros and cons of competitions

I’m going to be intentionally controversial here to see what people think: I don’t see why this needs to be a competition. I understand the argument that it makes it more real for the students, putting them in control. However, I think the ‘money’ and the ‘voting’ detracts from the event and I’d even go so far as to say that this aspect is counter-productive. All the students seemed to want to do was chat and ask questions and giving them this ‘power’ to vote seemed to distract more than anything.

As a scientist I voluntarily gave up my time and energy to chat with these students and answer their questions. The £500 prize wouldn’t even cover my time for that period, let alone enable me to do a ‘serious’ outreach activity. My last outreach program cost £8000. 
I’m not saying I couldn’t do anything at all with £500 but honestly; is £500 enough for outreach which has any large, meaningful impact?

On the one hand it was interesting to try to get across to the students the fact that £500 isn’t a life-changing amount of money, but on the other hand, shouldn’t we have been chatting about science and life as a scientist?

Lesson 3: The importance of knowing your audience

Even with a huge time commitment I didn’t feel like I did many of the good questions justice… but there didn’t seem any way around this. I still have a job to do, but there are lots of students and lots of questions (some more relevant than others…)

There are inherent problems with online communication. Particularly with the offline questions I had no idea if I was answering to a 13 year old or a 19 year old. If there is one thing I know about communication it’s that knowing your audience is key. Yet in this case, 
I didn’t know my audience. This seemed like a barrier to good communication.

The online chats were better as we at least knew the age group of the students. These were sometimes fun and sometimes slightly irritating, but always fast-paced and hectic. I think this is where much of the real engagement happened as it really was two-way communication.

Lesson 4: Think about the wider implications (good and bad)

The good thing is that questions and answers by scientists are searchable and online after the event. I hope that this will lead to a wider engagement than just the students we chatted to, although I’m not sure that my hurried answers without reference or fact checking are really the best source of information! (Even if there are almost 300 of them.)

In one or two cases I actually went back and edited answers after some further reflection. I’m only human and can’t remember everything. But at the same time, I didn’t think the point of the competition was sitting on Google every evening finding answers to things I couldn’t remember, so I made an active decision not to do this as, surely, it doesn’t help anyone.

I fully expect some fallout from this event once other scientists discover and disagree with some of my answers. It’s only natural, since 99 percent of the factual questions asked were not things I would say I’m an expert in. This is OK, but it’s not something I thought about before I went into the event.

Lesson 5: How much experience is required?

If you are a scientist but the thought of getting up in front of a class of school kids makes your palms sweat with an extraordinary kind of fear, then I strongly urge you to register for “I’m A Scientist”. I have no doubt you’ll love it, and get a lot out of it!

I did get the impression that there were some very talented communicators amongst the scientists and it seemed a pity that some of their (obvious) talents were slightly wasted by being in an online event.

The event is a great opportunity to get more scientists communicating with students, which I think really ought to be the aim. It is important to make clear the level of experience required for an event, especially where less experience could mean a greater impact.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Suzie

    Hugely enjoyed reading your blog post. Your 5 lessons learned are spot on. I feel the same way as you about the competition element. I too felt that at times it was a bit of a distraction - but my guess is that the x-factor thing is needed as much as anything to draw the kids into the event. And if that what's needed to fully engage them it has to be a good thing. I just posted my own reflections on the event here