IAS2013- nearly over. Was it worth it?

As posted earlier, I am thrilled to have made the final of I’m a Scientist. I never thought I would get that far in the competition and so I am immensely chuffed about it. The fact that I have made it reflects a huge amount of work that I have put into it. I would guess that I have committed about 2 hours a day to this for the last fortnight. That has involved some evenings sat (as I am now) with laptop on my lap, glass of wine by my side, answering the students questions. It has also involved shutting up shop in the office for half an hour at a time to do the live chats. Today, those chats have eaten up 2 hours or so of work time. I can feel the bean-counters stirring and muttering darkly about the full economic cost of the exercise…

So, although it isn’t over yet, I feel it is time to reflect on whether it has been a worthwhile experience. Could I have made better use of my time? What might I have achieved otherwise? Should I have been giving that time to our own students at Nottingham? All in all I (and my wine glass agrees) think that this has been overwhelming success.

1. The students have benefitted immensely. It has been clear from the live chats that they have loved talking to the scientists, that they have learned some snippets of information and most importantly have learned how to ask about anything (death, sex, space, quantum physics, the weather, light, God, cancer, disease, infection, food, robots, the end of the world…) with complete confidence. As scientists we have been able to engage with them as equals, to provide encouragement and inspiration. We have laughed and joked together and the distance between a classroom in Hackney and my professorial suite (sic) at Sutton Bonington has been reduced. I wish that some of our own students would feel just as free to ask me about absolutely anything. Time and time again in IAS I have told the students to follow their dream, not be derailed or deflated by anyone else and stick to their guns. I hope that has given them a boost.

2. I have benefitted from the process. As an established professor of some standing, I am by definition a bit set in my ways and very specialised in my knowledge. Talking to the kids, ranging in age from 11 to 14 has been immensely challenging. To say that I have been out of my comfort zone would be a massive under-statement. I have been moved to a different planet altogether on occasions. It isn’t a problem to talk to kids- I own a fair few of my own- it is the having to think on my feet and respond at lightning speed to questions that aren’t on nutrition, aren’t even necessarily on biology. I feel that it has improved my communications skills, and more to the point I have been infected by the outreach bug. There will be more of this from me and I will find that when people are looking for volunteers to take part in things, that voice in my head will be saying ‘Go on… Go on. You could do that. You’d be good at it’. And I never refuse the voices in my head.

I would like to do this again sometime, but I don’t think I can. I have done the next best thing and convinced at least one colleague to sign up for the next one. I have also put the word around some of our local schools, so hopefully they will give it a try.

Watch this space for the result tomorrow… And then next week I will start work on the first full week of the post-REF submission era. I have some grant proposals beginning to crystallise in my brain.


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