With the fall school semester in full swing, parents, students and teachers are faced with a complex and ever-changing set of challenges to learning. And after having to close out the previous school year without notice or preparation many are feeling the stress of keeping children both educated and engaged. But whether in a classroom, at home, or just on a phone, anyone anywhere can now schedule time to ask scientists anything they want.
Skype A Scientist was created in 2017 by Dr. Sarah McAnulty, the executive director of the nonprofit, herself a squid biologist and an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Connecticut. What began as an exploration to bridge the gap between classrooms and scientists – not to mention build trust between the science community and the public – quickly found footing in 2018 and 2019. According to UCONN records, within the first eight months the nonprofit had already expanded across all 50 states, 12 time zones, 17 countries and had almost two thousand scientists volunteering their time and expertise to Skype into classrooms.
But in 2020, the Skype A Scientist team has been put to the test. Dr. McAnulty said over the summer they had already, “seen a huge increase in the number of sessions requested in general. Certainly, we’ve seen an increase in requests for virologists.” In fact, as this fall school year started, the nonprofit reports over 9,000 classroom and family requests just this year.
To meet that demand, by late summer nearly 11,000 scientists had signed up. “I think this is one of those watershed moments where people realize ‘Oh no, science communication is so important and I haven’t been doing enough of it’ and so everyone I’ve seen in the scientific community has been banding together over this. It’s a dark time, but it’s been really wonderful seeing scientists come together,” says McAnulty.
And when she says dark times, she is referring to the increasing lack of trust in the science community that has been growing for a number of years. A trend that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Without a consistent, reliable source of information, much of the public disengages – further widening the gaps that exist between scientists and the community. And, because most scientists are so far removed from the spotlight and general public discourse it can be hard to find outlets that allow for a safe space to ask questions and build trust.
But to build those relationships, the team recognizes that video chats with a scientist have to be simple and fun for both the students and the scientists, and allow them an open, honest space to ask questions. More specifically, they had to create a place where there was open dialogue and communication, not one person lecturing others.
In a previous Forbes interview, Dr. McAnulty explained how the process works. It’s as simple as filling in a Google form about what topic you’re interested in and the kind of scientist you’d like to request. The form also allows for families and teachers to request matching with scientists based on everything from language spoken to race and gender – showing students that scientists look and sound just like them. In fact, to make science as assessible as possible, there are currently more than 14 languages offered, including American Sign Language.
The scientists involved have also created a strong presence online, including an active Twitter account with more than 22 thousand followers, where they and the public interact and share passions.
But the importance of opening up lines of communication extends far beyond social media and Skype sessions. And, building and maintaining science conversations isn’t just for kids. In recent months the nonprofit has set up Science After Hours, interactive trivia for adults and Skype A Scientist LIVE (via YouTube), where anyone can log in, submit questions and listen to scientists teach about the work that they do.
As the Covid-19 pandemic goes into winter with us, traditional methods of learning and lecturing will continue to be disrupted. But nonprofits like Skype A Scientist are embracing technology, connectivity and curiosity to literally bring science education anywhere, and to everyone. What started as a few connections, is now thousands of connections (and growing) each year. And hopefully, with more interaction misinformation can be dispelled, trust can be rebuilt, and an entire new generation of children will be inspired and excited to pursue their interests in science.