Last school year at Kendall Elementary School in Norwalk, Bryana Snyder’s third-grade students stared intently at the projection screen in her classroom. Snyder introduced Daniel Corzo, an engineer in Saudi Arabia conducting research on photovoltaics and 3D printing. “My students were so excited to speak to a scientist,” Snyder says. “We focused mostly on college, his career, what made him become a scientist, how he got there, and what his job is like. It was a wonderful experience.”
Snyder was seeking to bring science to life as a way of encouraging her students to think about it as a future career option. Rather than soliciting local parents to participate, she turned to Skype a Scientist, an initiative launched by a University of Connecticut biologist that brings scientists from around the world into classrooms near and far through the video chat technology Skype.
“I did a survey of my students before and after about their interest in pursuing science careers, and the number doubled after the call,” Snyder says. The experience and response have been similar at thousands of schools around the world.
Skype a Scientist is the brainchild of Sarah McAnulty, who studies the immune system of squid at UConn but spends most of her time raising funds, recruiting participants, and matching scientists with classrooms for informal conversations about science and science careers. She launched the initiative in 2017 to address what she saw as a lack of trust between scientists and the public.
“I felt like the first step to breaking this down was giving people the opportunity to meet a scientist to show that we’re just like everybody else. We’re not the way we’re portrayed in movies and TV,” McAnulty said. “I hadn’t met a scientist until college, and as a kid I had no concept of what science looked like. By giving people a chance to see what science looks like, it decreases the intimidation around science.”
So she reached out to her friends and followers on Twitter and hoped she could drum up enough interest for 100 scientists to speak to 100 schools during the spring semester of 2017. Instead, 800 schools signed up along with 500 scientists, and it has been growing at a tremendous rate ever since. In 2019, 4,600 scientists spoke to 9,300 classrooms. With the tumultuous nature of 2020, demand is soaring ever higher. The results have been inspiring.
Phaedra Taft, a science coach at Greens Farms and Long Lots elementary schools in Westport, has scheduled several Skype a Scientist sessions for her students. Her fourth-graders spoke to a wildlife biostatistician stationed in Antarctica who counts penguins as part of a project to assess how the changing climate is affecting animal populations. He shared an aerial image with the students and challenged them to try to count the penguins, just as he does. Taft’s third-graders spoke to a paleobiologist at the University of Haifa in Israel who studies the growth rings of fossil clams and how they can be used to determine ancient environmental conditions.
“The students realized that jobs can look very different from what they may see around them,” Taft says. “And they saw how what they were studying in class connected to the real world and to exciting jobs.”
Both teachers were pleased that they could request scientists from one of 30 disciplines to correspond to their lesson plans, and Snyder was especially impressed that the demographics of her students were taken into consideration. “My students were so excited when they learned that our scientist grew up in Mexico and spoke Spanish, just like many of them,” she says.
Scientists and teachers sign up to participate via the Skype a Scientist website. Libraries, youth groups and related educational organizations may also request to Skype with a scientist.
McAnulty knew she would have little difficulty finding school classes interested in speaking with a scientist, but she’s been surprised how easy it has been to recruit scientists as well. “Twitter has been an amazing tool,” she says. “I have to do almost nothing to get scientists to sign up because the Twitter grapevine has done wonders for us. For scientists interested in doing outreach, it doesn’t get any easier than this. They don’t even have to leave their lab.”
As the program matures, McAnulty is working to develop a more sustainable funding model while also offering training sessions for scientists wishing to improve their science communication skills. In addition, she is hoping to diversify her science communication efforts by providing financial support to LGBTQ, Black and Hispanic scientists. “We know how important that kind of representation is,” she says.
Ultimately, the success of the program is read on the faces of the children in each classroom that receives a Skype visit from a scientist. “Every scientist we have spoken to emphasized that science is about asking questions and trying to find answers,” Taft says. “Children ask a lot of questions about the world around them, and these experiences have encouraged them to stay curious.”