Between April 25 – May 6, I’m A Scientist USA will once again be pitting some of the country’s smartest young scientists against middle and high school kids, in the quest to be the Last Scientist Standing.

If you’re up for the challenge, you have until April 4 to throw your hat into the ring!

I’m A Scientist is an online competition that allows school kids of all backgrounds and abilities to engage with scientists in ways that they would never usually have the chance to.  It’s open to scientists from academia, industry and the public sector.

I’m admittedly a little biased here as a member of the I’m A Scientist USA Advisory Board, and a winner in the original UK competition (where it all started).

That said, I would rank this as one of the most exciting, rewarding and transformative experiences you can take part in if you’re a young scientist with a passion for inspiring others – especially middle and high school students.

Why I’m A Scientist is different

What makes I’m A Scientist different from many other “communication opportunities” is that the kids call the shots – with a little help from their teachers and the I’m A Scientist team.

As a contestant (and be warned – competition’s fierce to get accepted) – you are placed in a “zone” with four other scientists (“the competition”), and assigned to a group of school classes.

Over the competition’s two weeks, your kids (and you’ll get to know some of them pretty well), post questions to the zone, sometimes directing them to you personally.  These can be about pretty much anything – from why’s the sky blue, to what makes a black hole, to what do you do all day (and even what’s your favorite food).

You’ll also have a few incredibly intense live chats with your classes, where the students will bombard the group with questions at an unbelievable rate.

And in week two, your students will start to vote participants “off the island”.

An inspiring experience

Participating in I’m A Scientist will humble you – these kids are smart, insightful, and know how to ask tough questions (all of them – not just the high-achievers).

It’ll also make you appreciate what you do and why more, and understand better how relevant science is to kids of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.

It’ll help you listen and engage with others, and become a better communicator as a result.

And it will leave you with a renewed passion for what you do, and why it matters.

And the real winners are …

The real winners though are the students.  It’s quite incredible to see how they light up online as they realize that they can talk with and relate to scientists as ordinary people, who don’t always know all the answers.

One of last year’s students captured this in a comment to PhD student Jeff Shi, who went on to win the competition:

“I appreciated that you answered all my questions with details. I also appreciated that you were being realistic. Lastly, I appreciated that you were telling the truth”

What especially gets me every time is how the competition empowers kids who too easily get left out of conversations around science – the quiet ones, the kids who aren’t self-assured, or who don’t think they’re smart enough (what rot!).

Or the kids who aren’t high flyers, or who have been told that science isn’t for them (more rot!), or who suffer from learning disabilities (because science is relevant to everyone, regardless of ability).

Perhaps more than any format I’ve come across, this is a way of empowering and validating kids who are too often overlooked.  It’s the reason why I’m so passionate about the competition.

Not just the kids

It’s not just the kids that benefit though.  I’m A Scientist is designed to support teachers in their science classes, and includes extensive resources for using the competition effectively.  Reading through comments from teachers on last year’s competition, this one stood out:

“Thank you guys soo much! I was so surprised how much the kids got into it. Thanks for taking time out of your day to chat with the kids. Even the kids who I thought wouldn’t care too much were some of the most eager! I am always looking for ways to engage those kids who don’t see science as “fun” and I am glad that your lighthearted and enthralling answers inspired them! Keep up the GREAT work!!”

Then there are the participants – irrespective of whether they won or not (and to be honest, this is a competition where the participation is way more rewarding than the winning) . Just a few of the comments from last year’s scientists:

“I wanted to thank you so much for the opportunity to interact with so many amazing schools and students! I never expected to make it as far as I did, but I am very grateful. This was a really transformative experience for me”

“I cannot imagine a better use of my time the last two weeks than interacting with my fellow scientists and the amazing students that whole time”

“I’ve had such a great time, I wish it didn’t have to end!”

Your turn

So if you’re up for inspiring kids, no matter what their background, and being inspired yourself, think about applying for the April/May competition – remembering that you only have until April 4 to do so.

If you want to find out more, please do check out the About page for scientists, and read the report from last year’s event.

And if nothing else, check out what went down in last year’s event!

Feature image: Last year’s I’m A Scientist USA winner Jeff Shi