The last psychologist standing

Ella Rhodes reports from 'I'm a Scientist…'

Would you be brave enough to take part in two weeks of online chats with schoolchildren – who can ask you absolutely anything – only to potentially be voted out X-Factor style? I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here does just that, bringing together groups of academics in themed zones who are available for online chats with classes of primary and secondary school pupils.

This summer’s two psychology-themed zones – Society and Wellbeing – were sponsored by the British Psychological Society and included researchers in sport and exercise psychology, health psychology, alcohol, and autism. Throughout the two weeks schools could sign up to chatrooms to speak with the six psychologists in each zone.

The psychologists also answered questions posted by students on the I’m a Scientist website, which are archived as a resource for pupils. Towards the end of the two weeks students began to vote to ‘evict’ scientists and eventually chose a winner of each zone who was awarded £500 to put towards public engagement.

Dr Daniel Jolley (Staffordshire University) researches conspiracy theories and was the last scientist standing in the Society zone. He said initially he was nervous about the online chats but ended up becoming slightly addicted to them.

‘The questions were so varied, the students asked everything from what my favourite pizza was to my experience of university and why I wanted to be a psychologist. It was awesome. The chats were 30 minutes long with children from Year 6 to Year 12, and for those 30 minutes the students can ask whatever they like. Usually there were two to three scientists in a chat at any one time.’

Jolley said it was challenging, but a useful experience, communicating science with a wide range of ages. ‘The chats were very different, when we signed on to our chat with Year 6 pupils, we were greeted by a barrage of hellos and the kids asking to be our friends! But their questions were great, they really made us think about our responses. From Year 9 and above the students got straight into their real-world questions!’

Sam Burton, a PhD student at the University of Liverpool who is studying self-control in heavy drinkers and alcohol addiction, won the Wellbeing zone. He said he was motivated to put himself forward to show pupils what scientists are really like and to speak to potential future scientists. ‘There is a real image of scientists, going around in white lab coats and being total nerds (partly true the nerd bit), but most of us don’t wear a lab coat and do everyday things like play sports or go the cinema.’

Burton said the experience had helped him think about ways to explain science in simpler terms, but he also learned much from the pupils. ‘They’d ask questions on anything, including the aquatic apes theory! My favourite part was the ask zone, any question could be asked, but there was a particular question on the effect of cannabis. Legality of cannabis and the effects it has on people is a highly topical issue and something I’m really interested in, so being able to talk about it was brilliant.’

The next I’m a Scientist event will take place from 5 to 16 November and will include psychology zones suitable for a wide range of scientists in the field. To apply to take part you just need to write a single sentence, aimed at a 13-year-old, about your work and fill in the online form at imascientist.org.uk/scientist-apply.

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