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Need online lessons for your kid? This site lets them Skype with a scientist

Interested in ichthyology or curious about crustaceans? Skype a Scientist lets you bring experts into your home (virtually) to answer all your questions — for free.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, caused school districts, colleges, and universities to shut down and move all classes online with very little notice. Millions of students and parents suddenly have to deal with the new reality of remote learning.
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Dr. Sarah McAnulty is a squid biologist and executive director of Skype a Scientist. She started the program in 2017 as a way to connect classrooms with scientists, but with everyone now at home due to the coronavirus, it’s been expanded to allow families to chat with experts as well.

McAnulty told Digital Trends that even before 2017, she and many of her colleagues noticed an increase in antiscience rhetoric on the internet. “A lot of people were like, man, we really have kind of failed at effectively communicating science,” she said. With Skype a Scientist, kids — even those who aren’t necessarily interested in science — get a chance to interact with an astronomer, chemist, geologist, biologist… the list goes on.

“You can find yourself going down a rabbit hole if you try to look up all the scientists that we have,” McAnulty said of the database with more than 5,000 experts. “We’ve had more scientists signing up because they had the time availability suddenly, because they couldn’t be in the lab doing their experiments.”

Finding the right expert

In order to match classrooms — and now families — with the right expert, teachers or parents fill out a form on the site. They can first search the database by entering something as narrow as shark or as broad as biology. Then they can indicate their preferred expert on the form. If you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for, Skype a Scientist can still find you a match. The program’s “matchmaker,” who’s also a computer scientist, sends out the emails connecting the scientists and classrooms. The two parties take it from there to set up the call.

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Skype a Scientist also tries to get all kinds of kids interested in science, from all different backgrounds. On the form, you can indicate if over half your group is made up of kids who are underrepresented in STEM fields, and Skype a Scientist will work to find an expert from the same community.

“The idea is that we can give kids a view that people like them are active scientists, and they’re welcome in science,” said McAnulty. While there are scientists participating from all over the world, some time zones are better represented than others. That’s generally the main barrier to finding a more specific match.

Lots of livestreams

If you don’t want to do a one-on-one Q&A with a scientist, McAnulty has increased the number of livestreams she soes with experts from a few times a month to several times a week. These are also available on Skype a Scientist’s YouTube channel after the livestream. You can watch a bat scientist bust a myth or a big cat expert talk about Tiger King inaccuracies. McAnulty said they used to get around 20 classrooms tuning into these talks; now between 100 and 500 people are watching.

Even as more families are signing up to speak with scientists, McAnulty said teachers have stopped participating as much. Some have students without internet access at home. All are scrambling to rework lessons plans for online and distance learning.

“I hope that after this, when we can all go back to school and everything, that teachers will continue using our program, because, certainly, they’ve been unfortunately forced to get tech-savvy really fast,” McAnulty said. “But I think science communication is important 100% the time, whether you have a pandemic going on or not.”

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