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Ohio State scientists connect with students of all ages through virtual program

Skype a Scientist pairs classrooms across the country with university researchers

While faculty at The Ohio State University spend much of their time in classrooms on campus, some have also been able to reach students around the country. Through the Skype a Scientist initiative, researchers at Ohio State have teleconferenced into schools and spoken to classes with pupils as young as kindergartners.

Ann Marie Hulver, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences, has participated in the program for more than five years. She sees it as an opportunity to broaden students’ horizons.

Ann Marie Hulver“Skype a Scientist has been a great way to get people interested in marine science who may not be otherwise,” she said. “If there’s a class in Ohio, they may not know much about coral reefs. It’s a good way to get students learning about something that’s not necessarily in the normal curriculum.”

Depending on the class age, Hulver will be asked questions that range from what her favorite animal is to how she became a scientist. Answering questions at different education levels has made her a stronger educator, she said.

“As scientists, especially scientists who study climate change like I do, you realize that most people don’t have the same expertise you do,” she said. “As scientists, it’s important to be good at communication with people that aren’t scientists. Skype a Scientist is helpful with that.”

Interested scientists apply each semester, listing their specialty and preferred age range, as well as how many times they’d like to meet a class. After that, teachers reach out to them to schedule the call. Sometimes scientists give presentations. They also are encouraged to speak directly with the students.

“A lot of times, I just field questions,” said Laura Pomeroy, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health. Her research is in infectious diseases, which is something she said even young kids can understand.

“They’re actually great experts because of childhood diseases. They’re getting sick all the time,” she said. “So, I approach it with questions. ‘Do you remember when you were sick?’ ‘Do you remember getting vaccinated?’”

Laura PomeroySome of Pomeroy’s favorite questions are not about her research but about how she came to be a scientist.

“They want to know the process of doing science,” she said. “‘What did you do today?’ ‘What did you do before we talked?’ ‘Do you teach?’ ‘Do you work in a lab?’”

Answering these questions is part of her responsibility as an employee of a public institution, she said.

“I’ve always worked at public land-grant institutions,” she said. “I really buy into that idea. I think, as someone who is currently and previously funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, my training and my research is there for every person in this country. … It is my duty to participate in this system and to show people what the system is, so they can participate if they want to.”

Hulver agrees.

“Skype a Scientist has made me more interested in doing outreach wherever I end up [after graduating],” she said. “I’d like to do more outreach with local schools, especially hands-on activities, which I think are important for getting people into science.”

While students may be excited to hear about labs and experiments, they are sometimes surprised by another key part of the research world.

“I talk a lot about how much writing we have to do,” Pomeroy said. “We write grants, and we write our articles. It surprises them. And the teachers are like, ‘See! You do have to learn how to write!’”

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