Science and a dose of reality

21st October 2011 at 01:00
An online scheme that connects pupils and scientists was inspired by reality TV. Douglas Blane reports

At first sight it's just kids at computers, an everyday scene in classrooms around the country. But the pupils at Smithycroft Secondary are not doing online research or playing educational games. They are talking to scientists - real scientists in real time.

The session is part of the biggest science engagement project in Britain. "We were one of the first to get involved in `I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here'," says Smithycroft chemistry teacher Linda McCusker. "This is its fourth year and it's gone from strength to strength. What I love is the live chat. That's when they really get to know the scientists."

Funded by the Wellcome Trust and loosely based on TV reality shows, the project manages to persuade 100 busy scientists each year to devote several hours a day, for a week-and-a-half, to answering schoolchildren's questions about science.

For the effort involved, the rewards to the scientists seem slender - pound;500 if they're the last one standing in their group; nothing if the youngsters vote them off before the end. So why do it?

Well, good scientists are not necessarily good communicators. But nowadays they need to be. Hiding in ivory towers will not solve major 21st-century problems such as climate change. "I'm a Scientist" is a fast way to learn about talking to the people who matter - the next generation of democratic participants.

There is also the fact that scientists are both co-operative and competitive. So once signed up and competing against four others in their group, they are hooked: pound;500 might not motivate them, but the prospect of winning does.

What the schools gain is more obvious. "Pupils learn what it's like to be a real scientist," says Mrs McCusker. I asked for and got two groups this year - forensic science and microbiology, which I gave to the biology department."

Crime and detection are the staple fare of TV drama, so it is easier for forensic scientists to explain their work than specialists in some other groups, such as quantum, brain, genes, microbiology, evolution and ecology. This year also included groups of specialists in energy generation, sports science, marine science and healthy ageing, as well as a dozen others with a mixed bag of scientists in each.

It is also easier for youngsters to come up with good questions in an applied science such as forensics - although the annual evaluations comment on the sophistication of the questions pupils around the country ask all the scientists.

They are still teenagers, of course, with a lively sense of humour, so a few questions are not entirely serious, such as: "If girls have periods, why don't boys get a kick in the balls once a month?"

But the moderators, the online presence of the teacher and, in particular, the youngsters' genuine interest in what scientists have to say ensure that the vast majority of interactions are focused, relevant and courteous.

"You prepare a few questions, then make it up as you go along, like a real chat," says Conor Brown (S6) while monitoring classmates' questions and scientists' replies, scrolling up his screen. "I asked what their job involves, how they got into it, how much they enjoy it.

"I'll probably vote for Anna. Her work is all about bones. She was telling us she'd solved a crime through studying the pelvis, because that's all she had. I thought that was amazing."

What you can learn from bones is fascinating, says Nicole Dailly (S6). "It's not just about crime. If there's a disaster or a fire they can identify people from their bones. I think that's cool."

Teenagers sometimes see science as boring, says Mrs McCusker. "They don't understand what's possible. Getting to talk to real scientists shows them the variety out there. I encourage them to ask personal questions too, so they see that scientists are people."

Since there are only a few scientists in each group and a classful of people firing questions at them, you have to be a little patient, says Mark McCallum (S6). "You get a question answered faster if you say who it's for. But some you want to ask them all - like I just asked if any of them is religious, and if they think science and religion contradict each other."

Online chats are the most obviously engaging part of "I'm a Scientist", says Mrs McCusker, but they are not the whole of it. "Pupils can log in and leave questions on the website any time they like, and the scientists answer them. You also get debating kits and role-play cards for topics such as IVF. They're excellent, especially for senior pupils."

The teacher is free to choose how much time to devote to any of this, she says. "Pupils get into it quickly and you could easily get two weeks' lessons. It's great for the end of term, because you have finished the course work and can get on to topical science."

There is a huge bank of questions on scientific topics on the `I'm a Scientist' website.

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