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Talking science—for the kids

I’m staring at my computer screen, trying to delicately answer a question from a child across the Atlantic Ocean whom I’ve never met. It’s not a question I’ve anticipated, and as I think about how to phrase my response, I wonder whether I should even be doing this.

This is the question: “When will u invent dogs that will live forever?”

Responding with “No plans to do so” seems honest but dismissive. Saying “You misspelled ‘you’” is unnecessarily pedantic. I’m severely tempted to write “I did it yesterday but forgot to write down how” and see what happens. I try to envision one of my own children asking the question, which doesn’t help—I’d probably end up answering, “I’ll do it when you clean your room.”

I’ve always believed scientists should interact more with children. (Not at random, of course; that would be creepy.) After all, many kids reach the end of high school having met a dozen science teachers—but never having met an actual scientist. This obscurity can make us seem distant, mythical, or inhuman, more like archetypes and less like legitimate role models. So when I heard Shane McCracken give a presentation about “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here,” an outreach program to connect schoolchildren with scientists, I asked to participate.

For about 10 years, McCracken has been curating these online interactions—named after a television show called I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!—with the support of the Wellcome Trust. The goal, McCracken says, is to “turn the usual power structures upside-down” to make kids feel comfortable talking to experts about science. This year’s scientists even included one who had also participated, 6 years previous, as a child.

At the beginning of a “season,” scientist volunteers create online profiles, and then they field questions from participating students, both on message boards and in live chat sessions. Seasons run for about a week and a half, and my particular “zone” connected six scientists with almost 600 kids.

The students can ask the scientists anything they want. (The scientists don’t have to answer, which is ultimately the technique I employ for the question about the immortal dog.) At the end, the students vote the scientists “off” one at a time, for whatever reasons they choose, until only one remains. That scientist wins £500 to spend on a science outreach project of their choice. I’ve proposed to use the money to bring scientists into underserved public classrooms in Washington, D.C., though I suppose that’s something I can do without money, too.

As I fill out my profile, I have this drumbeat in the back of my head: “This is for kids; keep their attention. This is for kids; keep their attention.” I want to win, so I want to appear knowledgeable, but I also want them to think I’m cool, because frankly, I’m still dealing with that.

I spend 10 minutes debating how to answer the question about my favorite food. Pizza seems like an easy winner of an answer. No, wait, chocolate! In a moment of lunacy, I write “Fresh tomatoes, when they’re in season” and click “Save Profile,” then spend the rest of the day concerned that I’ve answered that question like a tool.

Once my profile is created, I read about the other five scientists I’m competing against: Walaa, a Ph.D. student studying honeybees; a paleobiology Ph.D. student named Sophie; Sarah, an air quality specialist; a biomedical scientist named Gabriel; and Breandan, a geohazard specialist.

No! Walaa’s favorite food is pizza! And Sophie’s favorite band is the Arctic Monkeys. Is that a cool answer? I have no idea who the Arctic Monkeys are. Maybe they’re actual Arctic monkeys? No, that can’t be right. Regardless, the name sounds like a band that cool people have heard of.

After profile-obsessing for about an hour, I decide to dive right in and answer a student’s question on the message board. The FAQs caution scientists that they may be asked personal or uncomfortable questions—though their moderators try to block most of these before they make it to the scientists—a fact McCracken attributes to the website’s anonymity. For many kids, not only is it their only chance to interact anonymously with a scientist, but it’s also their only chance to interact anonymously with any adult.

McCracken has seen a few trends in question types in the countries where he’s run this program. In Vietnam, he says, students focus on the science and tend not to ask for personal information without explicit permission from their teachers. In Spain, the questions trend political. In Kenya, kids ask about sex. (As it turns out, I’m participating from the United States via special dispensation—the program is not technically in the States yet, though McCracken says he’d love to expand here. All of the other scientists in my group, and the children asking us questions, are in the United Kingdom.)

And while a few of the questions are juvenile or off topic—several students ask us questions about a game called Fortnite, and I deliberately skip “Is it dangerous to fart while the oven is on?”—most seem earnest. They’re fairly evenly split between questions about my research, questions about science in general, and personal questions. (For the record, none of the scientists have heard of Fortnite, and it’s OK to fart while the oven is on as long as you don’t fart into your oven. Though I suppose it still depends on your definition of “OK.”)

Interestingly, the most common question has been about our income—although maybe that’s because it’s the only question we’re all obviously dodging, so the kids keep pushing.

But I also get questions about public health, what a typical day is like, and why I became a scientist. “Is there any known way to bring a dead body back to life?” someone asks. Rather than just post “Nope,” I give a flowery answer about tardigrades and sea monkeys undergoing cryptobiosis. Too much? I don’t know.

Engaging with these kids is less time-consuming than I’d feared. Knowing there’s someone across the pond who might be delighted to see a response helps motivate me to answer just a few more.

By the third day, I’m fielding questions that the students have directed specifically toward me. “Why is liquid nitrogen dangerous?” (Very cold.) “Do you have any pets and if you do will you use them for experiments?” (No, and no.) And one question I’m not sure the reason for: “HOW DID YOU make the xbox.” (I had to confess that, alas, I did not make the Xbox.)

Because I don’t want to get voted off, I deliberately avoid the question “do u like soccer,” because I don’t. When asked what our favorite sport is, I say pinball, but Gabriel says capoeira. Damn it. He is so cool.

Some questions require delicacy. “Why are some people not as smart as others?” one student asks. Another writes, “Does the heart affect the ears cause my granda has a heart problem and has a hearing aid.” A third posts, “Why do we exist?” and I have to assume that student genuinely believes the scientist checking the message board knows the answer to this question. It reminds me of my own childhood, feeling certain that adults had all the answers, and that to solve life’s great mysteries, we only had to find a plucky child to ask the right questions. Sorry, plucky children. Here’s how disillusioning the adult world is: I skip that question, and then I go sit in a 2-hour meeting.

It’s the science questions, though, that really get me thinking. Every time I answer one, I’m forced to ask myself, “Is this explanation fascinating enough? Is it clear enough?” Actually, those are useful questions to ask oneself when explaining science to anyone.

A week into the program, the first scientist is eliminated. It’s Walaa. Whose favorite food is pizza now, Walaa?

I survive the second elimination as well. But when the third comes up, it’s my own name on the chopping block. In reality television terms, the bachelor did not give me a rose, my tiki torch has been extinguished, and Flavor Flav has told me my time is up.

A couple days later, Sophie is declared the winner. She plans to use the prize money to run a climate change workshop and fund a local museum to sponsor schools to send students for science-themed workshops. I have no bitterness toward Sophie; her plan sounds great. And like any good funding organization, “I’m a Scientist” will require her to send updates about her project.

McCracken has noticed a pattern among the winners: Typically, he says, kids vote for the scientists who answered their questions. As a trend, this makes sense. Kids will feel most engaged with the scientists who engaged them the most. And as far as I could tell, Sophie answered almost everything. I have to admit, by the end of the competition, I probably left half of the message board questions unanswered. Sorry, kids.

But I had fun, and I hopefully made an impact on some children. It’s so easy to get caught up in our jobs and leave outreach to a vague “someone else.” But the reality is that I—and you, and any scientist—can be that someone, with just a little bit of time and an open mind.

Meanwhile, at the University of York, Sophie is about to begin a new outreach project, and the cycle will continue.

Or maybe she’ll just spend the prize money on Arctic monkeys. I hear she likes those.

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