With science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers plentiful, many are focusing on how to get students excited about STEM. One way to spark students’ interest in STEM is to emphasize hands-on learning. Rather than associating STEM with the boredom of long, dry lectures or multiple-choice tests, students can find the fun and excitement in these subjects through interactive activities. One such opportunity for interactive STEM learning is offered by Skype a Scientist.
In 2017, Sarah McAnulty, a graduate student studying molecular and cell biology at the University of Connecticut, started Skype a Scientist to connect scientists to K-12 students. Inspired to help a new generation of learners understand the importance of science in society, she initially focused on underserved areas where students might not know any scientists in their communities. Her aim was to match scientists with classrooms of K-12 students via videoconferencing.
In the first year of the program, 1,740 classrooms and 1,755 scientists participated. These participants hailed from 17 different countries and all 50 states. No longer focused solely on underserved areas, the program now reaches any classroom anywhere. The program currently has over 2,000 scientists ready to talk with students in K-12 classrooms around the world.
About the Classrooms
All that is needed for a K-12 classroom to participate is a computer, an Internet connection, and a webcam. Teachers are asked to indicate if their students belong to a minority group that is underrepresented in the sciences. If so, the program attempts to match them with a scientist from a similar background. Currently, Skype a Scientist includes a diverse group of scientists: they are male, female, white, African American, East Asian, Southeast Asian, Latin American, Hispanic, Native American, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islanders, and LGBTQ. The program also includes scientists from low-income communities and those who were the first in their families to go to college.
Additionally, given the global nature of the initiative, the videoconference sessions can be conducted in a variety of languages. Current languages accommodated are English, Spanish, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Punjabi, and American Sign Language. Sessions can occur weekdays between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. in any time zone.
Each Skype session is interactive, rather than lecture-based. Therefore, students are expected to be ready with questions for the scientist. These questions can focus on a subject the students are learning in class, or they can focus on the scientist’s background in order to form a more personal connection. Each session lasts 30 to 60 minutes, so there is plenty of time for all students in each class to participate.
About the Scientists
The scientists who participate represent a wide variety of disciplines. They study biology, ecology, engineering, climate science, genetics, marine biology, mathematics, astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, medical science, animal science, computer science, neuroscience, oceanography, cartography, geography, veterinary science, materials science, and meteorology. Other fields they represent include anthropology, archaeology, psychology, and other social sciences.
Although the program is called Skype a Scientist, any videoconferencing technology can be used. Scientists are encouraged to set a friendly, positive tone for the conversation. The hope is that this less-formal approach will reduce the intimidation that many children (and adults) feel when talking with scientists. Scientists are able to request up to five classroom matches at a time, with the opportunity to sign up for additional matches as well.
In addition to the primary focus on K-12 students, Skype a Scientist is also available for other groups outside classrooms and schools. Special sessions can be arranged for people in correctional facilities. Additionally, groups of adults, like those organized by a library or local club, can participate.
Starting in September 2018, Skype a Scientist also began offering live video sessions to the general public. A variety of webinars are offered in a wide range of specialty areas. Scheduled at different times each month, the webinars are also recorded for later viewing. Questions from viewers can be submitted in advance, or they can be asked during the live sessions.
Upcoming topics include chemistry, fish biology, volcanic geology, and geophysics. Previously recorded webinars focused on volcanoes, reptiles, dinosaurs, and squid, among other topics. Participating scientists provide links to their social media accounts, websites, blogs, and videos so those who are interested can learn more about the topics and the scientist’s particular area of expertise, and even keep in touch.
In addition to helping schoolkids understand the importance of science in society, another aim of Skype a Scientist is to erase some of the most stubborn myths about scientists. Many people think scientists are boring, dull, and single-minded—or that you have to come from a particular background to be a scientist. In reality, a scientist can come from any background, and scientists are just like other people. They have families, friends, hobbies, and like to have fun. Hopefully, the connections made between the students who participate in this program and the scientists they are matched with will help reverse these misconceptions.