According to various studies (for example: Institution of Mechanical Engineers, "When Stem? – A Question of Age", 2010), the 11–14 age group is a crucial period for engaging and inspiring students in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In order to maintain their appetite for science, and thus attract the best people into the discipline, it is essential to tap into the enthusiasm and curiosity of these young minds at a time when their interest is at its height and thus inspire and encourage them to continue their studies.
One programme that does this is the UK-based "I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here!" event. This is a two-week science-engagement event that takes place online. The event gets teenagers talking to real scientists, via online messages, to learn about real science. The students have fun, but also get to learn about how science relates to real-life, break down any pre-conceived stereotypes and develop their thinking and discussion skills. The idea is to change students’ attitudes to science, and make them feel it’s something they can relate to and discuss.
In some ways, the "I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here!" event is like an X-Factor-style competition for scientists, where students are the judges. The event is split into zones, and in each zone there are five scientists and around several hundred students. At the start of the second week, the scientists with the fewest votes are evicted until only one is left to be crowned the winner in each zone and win £500 to spend on science communication activities. By giving the students some real power (i.e. deciding where the money goes), it makes the event more real for them.
One of the KAIRA team (the author!) will be participating in the June 2011 event. In addition to the web log here, which will have occasional reports, the event can be followed via the I'm a Scientist website. You can also follow it on Twitter (@imascientist) — watch for tweets marked #ias2011.