I’m Rebecca Dewey, I am a Research Fellow in Neuroimaging at the University of Nottingham, where I work in the Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit.
I recently took part in a scheme known as ‘I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!’ . I’m a Scientist is a free online event where school students get to meet and interact with scientists. It’s set up like an X Factor-style competition between scientists, where the students are the judges.
Events run three times a year, in March, June and November. Scientists and teachers can sign up to it independently, and I’ve given the links at the end of this post. I’m a Scientist is based on ‘I’m a Councillor, get me out of here!’, a similar event for local councils which was run for Local Democracy Week. It is supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Each scientist is allocated a “zone”, either based around their subject area or allocated at random. Each zone contains 5 scientists. Each school or class group is also then allocated to a zone, so that they talk to the same 5 scientists for the duration of the two week event. Students get to ask the scientists questions over live online chats and an interactive web forum. Then students vote for their favourite scientist in each zone to win a prize of £500 to communicate their work with the public.
Between March 2012 and March 2015, I’m a Scientist engaged with 39,506 students from about 400 schools around the UK. Originally the scheme was just aimed at secondary schools, but since March 2014, they have also developed an arm of the scheme specifically for primary schools.
The June 2015 event contained 12 zones. I was allocated to the “Hafnium Zone”, a general science zone funded by the Science and Technologies Funding Council. My area of expertise is functional neuroimaging, and my zone-mates covered areas from x-rays to neutrinos to computer programming to lasers. The Hafnium Zone was the busiest zone in the June 2015 event, with 555 students actively participating from a total of 12 schools. Our zone had the most questions approved (563), with those questions receiving a total of 844 answers from the scientists, and receiving a total of 30,522 page views throughout the event. Our zone also had the most live chats of any zone (23), producing a phenomenal 8,744 lines of live chat!
There was also great discussion on twitter between scientists and teachers from all zones, sharing their experiences of the event.
I found the experience really enlightening and it gave me a new perspective on how to explain my research to the general public. I found myself thinking about how to approach topics far and wide; from “why do we sleep?” to “what tiny change could wipe out all human life?” I have the resources at my fingertips to look up the answer to such questions, verifying Wikipedia articles by checking in peer-reviewed scientific journals, whereas students and teachers don’t.
It’s really made me look at public engagement and science communication differently. The immersive nature of the event meant that I didn’t just switch off after a web chat, but I found myself spending my evenings trying to explain every phenomenon I saw in life to the 13 year old inside my head! However, as a consequence of that, I’m a Scientist has massively increased my confidence in engaging with the public in general as it has demonstrated to me just how much I *do* know about science, that I thought I had forgotten!
I came in second place within my zone, which meant that I made it through to the final – an extra-special live web chat from 12 pm to 3 pm on the Friday afternoon of the second week. I’m really proud that I stuck it out to the end!
The next event is running from the 9th through to the 20th November 2015: