12 March 2018

Improving the interview-a-scientist assignment

Posted by Jessica Ball

Why isn’t this a good way to connect your students with a scientist?

Nearly every scientist who’s active on social media or blogging gets requests from students to answer questions for interview-a-scientist assignments. Now, I love the intent of these assignments, which is to get students excited about a science topic by connecting them with an actual living, breathing scientists. However, the execution can be a problem for the scientists.

Many of us are torn between wanting to foster science literacy and enthusiasm, and not having the time to accommodate every interview request or question. Answering these emails every once in a while doesn’t take up a huge amount of time, no, but a constant flow of them is disruptive for us and ultimately becomes a throwaway assignment for the students. Is the first, or fifth, or hundredth iteration of “What’s the biggest volcano in the world” or “How did you get interested in volcanoes” going to put someone on the path to being a volcanologist? I’d like to think so, but in reality it’s probably not going to provide the memorable experience that sparks that kind of drive.

Janet Stemdewel (@docfreeride) posted a Twitter thread about her experiences with these kinds of requests. It seems she gets a lot more than I do, and it’s very frustrating to her:

Consider the goals and potential outcomes of the assignment

As a scientist, I’d suggest taking a moment to think about whether this kind of assignment is really going to benefit your students in the long run. Will this task fit into the larger part of your curriculum in a way that teaches your students about the scientific process? About how scientists work? About a particular topic that the scientist in question studies? Will it help your student complete a science fair project? Are they interested in talking to a scientist because they want to be a scientist someday? These are all fair questions, and if you haven’t put any thought into them, it might be that the Ask-A-Scientist assignment becomes just another piece of busywork that will be set aside and forgotten in a year or two.

If, however, you encourage your students to start acting like scientists rather than just getting someone else to answer a bunch of questions about what subject they studied in school, they will have the opportunity to become more invested in the work. I know that not every fourth-grader I talk to about volcanoes and rocks is going to follow in my footsteps, but my time is going to be well-spent if I can open their eyes to the realities of thinking like a scientist. If I get one more kid to think about how research is done, or how we evaluate the trustworthiness of our sources of scientific information, or to start questioning the world around them in a systematic way, then I have no problem spending an hour or two in-person with a class. And I do!

Showing off a tabletop lava flow eruption  to a group at a AAAS family science day (Annual Meeting, San Jose, 2015). Photo courtesy of Andy Britton.

Resources to use INSTEAD of asking your students to send a list of questions to scientists

Scientists are all about efficiency, and there are a number of reasonably easy, efficient ways to connect with them. Here are a couple of great places to start.

  • Request a classroom (or school-wide) interview, either in-person or via video chat. This is something I will gladly do if I have the time, because a) it allows me to reach a lot of students at one time, and b) we get to have a face-to-face conversation instead of a rather impersonal email exchange. Also, if I’m there in person, I can bring rocks and equipment with me to show off, which is always fun!
  • Participate in an interactive broadcast like the Mount St. Helens Institute Volcano Explorers program. This one is volcano-specific and connects students nationwide with USGS volcano scientists, but you can find them for other scientific disciplines as well. Some examples:
  • Have your students follow one of the many Twitter feeds that host individual scientists for a few days or a week. Create a Twitter handle for your class and ask questions to the scientist that way! Here are just a few:
  • Find a scientist who is willing to act as a (remote or in-person) mentor over the course of a science fair project. I’ve done this with Patrick Goff (@bmsscienceteach), who approached me himself about the project. We decided on the number of students I would interact with, the schedule they’d be working on, and at what point I would exchange emails or talk with them. The structured assignment meant that I could schedule time in advance to participate (always a plus!), and I knew that I would be helping the students answer specific scientific questions rather than a list of general ones. This was a really rewarding experience for both of us, and I was happy to be part of it.
  • If you can’t make direct contact with a scientist, look for posts like this that collect the most frequently asked questions most scientists have heard: So you want to be a volcanologist (my contribution). These are just a starting place, and I often point students to these before I give a talk. It means I get more detailed questions, but I enjoy those even more, because it means the students are thinking more deeply about the topic.

And finally, please remember that scientists get bogged down in their work just like anyone else, and that they may not respond to a request (or may refuse them) because they simply don’t have time to. I do my best not to let emails get lost in my inbox, and will always try to respond even if the answer is no, but not everyone can manage that. We do care about the next generation of scientists, but we also want your students to get the most out of their interactions with us.