Superhero movies are giving scientists a bad name.
From Captain America to Wolverine, Superman to Deadpool, the villains of the piece are scientists, mad folks in lab coats twisting humans and nature into ungodly shapes and creating weapons capable of destroying the Earth.
That’s not a great first introduction to the scientific world if you’re a young student getting your information from Hollywood.
But then, what does a real scientist look like? What do they do? The word scientist covers an enormous range of roles, from the people who put preservatives in microwave dinners to the people who design flu vaccines to the people who put satellites in space.
To help kids figure out what being a scientist means, and in the interest of promoting the age-old educational adage of if I can see it, I can be it, Microsoft is turning its Skype video calling lens into a view of the real world of science. With the program Skype a Scientist the venerable (by tech standards) video conferencing platform is once again proving its educational value.
How Skype a Scientist Works
Skype a Scientist involves exactly that–making a live video call to a scientist in the lab, on the ground, in the Arctic, or wherever they’re doing science. It’s a free, and unfunded, service currently being offered to schools, and involves a 30- to 60-minute live Q&A session between the scientist and a classroom full of potential inventors, explorers, and maybe even Einsteins.
The program, founded by a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut, has so far beamed scientists into 800 different K-12 classrooms, across 28 countries and almost every state in the U.S. There are 500 more classes signed up for the program this fall.
Its success follows in the footsteps of other Skype educational successes including virtual field trips, guest lecturers, an education version of the game Minecraft, and remote lessons (as well as other video conferencing programs like virtual farm field trips, that are already taking place). What Skype a Scientist has the unique power to do is demystify the scientific field and make it accessible to students.
Why Are We Video Chatting with Scientists?
We at VC Daily have argued previously that video calling by female mentors in STEM fields can encourage students to go into fields in which they have traditionally been underrepresented. The idea is the same here, although the message is more about how you don’t have to be a genius or a superhero (or supervillain) to work in science.
Primarily, what kids need to see demonstrated is that it’s all about the amount of hard work, trial and error, patience, and time that you put into science that gets results. This isn’t a vocation of bubbling beakers, wild pyrotechnics, and attempts to take over the world.
By giving students the chance to ask their own questions, and navigate their own thoughts on science, you can dispel the myth and introduce them to the real people behind the discoveries and rockets and formulas.
By pushing the connect a little further past the Q&A stage, Skype a Scientist could be even more powerful.
Making Skype a Scientist Interactive
You may not have realized it, but there are live streaming webcams all over the world currently beaming out images of wildlife, international theme parks, and natural wonders.
Why not install a camera like this onsite at an ongoing scientific project, and tie it in with the Skype a Scientist program’s two-way video calling? All the scientists in the Skype program have already agreed to volunteer their time and offer a glimpse into their own private projects, so why not get someone from CERN, or on a polar bear counting project, to beam their operation live onto screens set up in classrooms all over the country?
Additionally, the students themselves could participate in the research. With remotely operated cameras they could scour the horizons of a project like the polar bear count, and notify scientists when they spot something. Being involved in the project itself takes things a step beyond asking questions based on a scientist’s show-and-tell of their work. It gets those students who learn by doing–instead of hearing or seeing–to engage. And anyone who’s ever worked with children knows that the pride they get from contributing to something bigger than them–from feeling that they’ve helped out–can make a huge difference in a life.
The mix of live cams and two-way interaction would make the scientific process an everyday part of schooling life, get students familiar with real scientific work, and give them some heroes to emulate who don’t mess with the fabric of time or plot global domination.