“I’m a scientist, get me out of here…!”

Having had just over a week to recover I can finally begin to look back on what were two incredible weeks of “I’m a scientist, get me out here” excitement!

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To the uninitiated, think academia meets X-Factor in a science communication and outreach fiesta. The premise is simple – school students ask science questions, scientists answer science questions, school students vote for their favourite scientist. But when it starts it really kicks off!The build-up was sedate enough, starting with a profile page to populate with information about how you live your life as a scientist. Then the Friday before the event went live, the first set of questions came through – ‘do you like exploring volcanoes?’, ‘how close can you get to a volcano before it burns you?’ and everyone’s favourite, ‘why do volcanoes erupt’ amongst many (and I mean many) others.

The students can ‘ASK’ questions whenever they like by submitting a post on the website, but the real fun starts when the live ‘CHAT’ sessions begin. 30 minutes in a web chat room answering questions in real-time. But these kids are quick, REALLY quick! And there are lots of them – a class at a time – all asking question upon question without waiting for a reply first. Needless to say I am now much faster at typing!

Attempting to muti-task. Volcano modelling on the left and 'I'm a scientist' on the right.
Attempting to muti-task. Volcano modelling on the left and ‘I’m a scientist’ on the right. Attempts proved futile! Image credit: James Hickey.

Five scientists started the competition. I shared my zone with Julie, Saima, Antoine and Daniel, boasting a huge variety of subjects between us. Over the first week of the competition we had 10 live chat sessions, fortunately I was able to make all of them. Others weren’t so lucky. This also meant I ended up going solo in several of them, answering questions from an entire school class on my own. Things were heating up…

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At the same time, questions kept flooding in via the ‘ASK’ section to answer at our ‘leisure’ (the sooner the better). Volcanoes soon became the hot topic (sorry, awful pun…) and the students’ interest was building.

A comment from an interested student.
A comment from an interested student.

The pressure really ramped up in the second week when the student votes started to add up and scientists were evicted daily. Daniel was the first victim, followed by Antoine on Wednesday.

We will never know how the students decided to vote. Was it the way we answered their questions? Short and sharp, or more in-depth? Humour or just plain fact? I tried to mix mine up. Except when it was acceptable for the one-worded answer, e.g. ‘Messi or Ronaldo?’, or ‘Do the Taliban blow volcanoes up?’ (yeah, that happened…!). Or maybe it was just on our individual research topics?

Next to leave was Saima, and there were only a couple more live chat sessions to go. With just Julie and I remaining it was getting tense – I didn’t want to let down #teamvolcano. Amazingly the students still had numerous unanswered questions – maybe the things they just hadn’t had the chance to ask before (e.g. ‘can you drift a front-wheel drive car?’) or things they wouldn’t want to ask their teachers (e.g. ‘why do women get cravings when they’re pregnant?’).

Some Twitter-based support!
Some Twitter-based support!

The final day peaked with a ‘mega chat’ – 2 hours of uninterrupted live chat allowing students from multiple schools to drop in and ask more questions. This was it, the final chance to secure those all-important votes! The hour between the end of the chat and the results being announced was jittery at best…

Zone-by-zone the winners were revealed. My office mates clambered around my screen as they were released. Then…

The winner of the Tellurium Zone is James!

A wining message wouldn't be complete without a volcano pun!
A wining message wouldn’t be complete without a volcano pun!

Cue excitement! I had done it! Now to plan how I will spend the £500 prize on volcano-related outreach projects :D.

Obviously though, the real winners are the students. Hopefully the other scientists and I did enough to convince them that not all scientists are crazy with bad hair and hang around in a lab coat all day without ever seeing the sunlight. In fact one of the questions we were asked was ‘do you get bad hair days?’. Haha! If they go away with a more informed view of careers in science I think we can all consider ourselves successful. Sparking some interest outside of their school science curriculum and seeing how they can actually apply some of the stuff within their curriculum is all part and parcel of the event.

Hopefully this student wasn't the only one we inspired!
Hopefully this student wasn’t the only one we inspired!

My mind was blown by the huge variety of the questions thrown my way. I had to work really hard but I’m incredibly glad I did. Some of the questions were so imaginative — I think we start to lose that sort of mental freedom as we get older and our curiosity is constrained by sense, so it was refreshing to see it again and long may it continue.

The event will run again in March and I seriously encourage as many of you as possible to apply to take part. You will not regret it.

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About James Hickey

I'm a geophysical volcanologist trying to better understand volcanic unrest.

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