Wednesday, 28 October 2015

I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here!

In Spring 2014 I took part in a wonderful outreach event called I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here! This initiative brings scientists and school children together using a combination of internet chat events between scientists, school children and their teachers, and question boards that scientists post answers to. The objective is to give school children a chance to meet real scientists and ask them the sort of questions they want to ask them. I found it great fun and I got to chat to a lot of students and heard what they thought about many of the big science questions of the day.

After a fortnight of regular chat events, and trying to answer as many of the student's questions as possible, I learnt that the students had voted me their favourite of all the scientists taking part that month. I was touched to hear that I had connected with so many students and I hope they had all learnt something from me as well! The reward for winning the event was a small cash prize to spend on my outreach work, which was a wonderful gift from the organisers.

I wanted to find a way to put the prize money towards a project that provided school children with exposure to real scientific research in a fun and simple way. My original plan was to produce a series of posters that shared cutting-edge scientific ideas in astronomy with school children through simple but attractive imagery. In the end I did spend a portion of the money on this project, but I also wanted to do something more proactive that would make a longer-term impact on school children across the country.

Two of the science posters made to try to explain complex scientific ideas using attractive astronomy images.
Copies of both of these posters are still available, so please message me if you'd like one sent to your school.

The British Science Association runs an excellent scheme called CREST Awards, whereby 11-19 year old school students complete projects that help build their scientific skills. The work for these is typically done in school STEM clubs, which also provide an extra opportunity for students to engage with science. You can read more about them or find out how to get involved here.

Suitable scientific projects for CREST Awards are not easy to prepare, particularly astronomy projects and this was evidenced from the shortage of such projects currently available for schools from the CREST website. I wanted to remedy this by designing a number of astronomy-related CREST projects that used real astronomy data, yet were easy for school teachers to use, and were also really fun for students.

Most astronomy data is actually free and readily available for anyone to use, including high-quality images that can be used to answer exciting and cutting-edge questions in science. It is my hope that by helping school children access this data and providing projects that allow them to study and use this data in a real scientific experiment we could enthuse the children to pursue scientific subjects in school and possibly take up a career in science. So I started designing a few projects that used real and freely available data.

As it happened at that time a local school in Hertfordshire made a request to our local STEMNET coordinator for someone to help them set up a new STEM club. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity not only to test my CREST projects, but also to work with a school going through the process of setting up a STEM club, and in doing so see the process through the teacher’s eyes.

Me with part of an inflatable Solar System I bought with the prize money
to help teach students about the planets.

Working with the school and the teachers I was able to refine and fashion the projects, making them easy to use for the teachers, while also being new and exciting for the school children. I used the prize money to visit the school regularly, give talks to the students, and advise the teachers on how to run the CREST Award projects I had designed. By being directly involved in the STEM club itself I was also able to see how the students reacted to the projects, what worked for them and what they enjoyed the most. It was a really enjoyable experience and taught me a lot about how teachers interact with students and what scientists can most helpfully provide teachers with to help them.

These projects will soon be available through the CREST website, with information for how they can be run, where the data can be obtained, and how the results can be interpreted by students and teachers. This is all thanks to "I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here!", so thank you to all involved!

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