Using Skype for outreach

As part of International Polar Week, Digital Explorer have been running an event called ‘Arctic Live 2016’ that is based around Skype lessons between schools around the world and polar scientists. I heard about this event through the UK Polar Network (a branch of APECS) and decided to get involved and have my first attempt at outreach via Skype.

I was paired up with two classes – some 11 year olds in Argentina and some 14 year olds in Croatia. Both wanted me to talk about the practicalities of polar research and the potential paths into jobs in the Polar Regions.

The preparation for these sessions caused me a little trouble – how do you prepare to teach a lesson over Skype? I consulted Google and did a bit of tech testing to find out what media would work well over Skype. Before too long I had worked out a couple of lesson plans and felt fairly confident that my equipment would work properly.

The lessons themselves went very well and I really enjoyed the opportunity to do a bit of outreach to non-British students. It was also interesting to use the new format of Skype to carry out the lessons. I learnt a lot from this experience and have a few tips for getting the most out of digital outreach, particularly via Skype.

Top tips for science outreach via Skype:

  1. Make sure you equipment works. Test your video and audio using the Skype test call service and ensure your internet connection is as good as possible.
  2. Set up your webcam. Mine is built in to my laptop and getting a good angle (i.e. not looking up my nose) required me to sit the computer on top of a pile of books. I also had a little rearrange of my office to get a clearer background and make me easier to see.
  3. Test your media by Skyping a friend. This allowed me to practice using Skype’s ‘share screen’ function. I also discovered that sharing YouTube videos via ‘share screen’ only shares the video, not the sound. This could have been a right pain if I’d only found it out during a lesson!
  4. Talk slowly. This is always true when presenting but particularly true when there might be a bit of a lag time and some feedback. It’s really worth investing in a headset with a microphone to make your speech clearer. Also be aware that you may need to talk even slower when addressing non-native English speakers.
  5. Send copies of PowerPoints and other files to the teacher ahead of time. Then if there are connection problems or other technical issues, you can revert to a basic audio call and get them to put the media up on screen locally.

Hope these tips are helpful. Let me know if you’ve had any experiences with Skype outreach. Do you have any tricks of your own to get the most out of this technology?

Thanks to María Laura Bargas (teacher of the class in Argentina) and Gordana Novak (teacher of the class in Croatia) for the use of their photos.

Outreach – should you get involved?

Outreach is a bit of a buzz word in science these days and everyone seems to be doing it. If you are funded by a UK research council you may even find that taking part in some form of outreach is a required condition of your funding. Sometimes this can be quite straight forward, like publishing something in an open access journal or tweeting about your fieldwork. But other times you may be asked to take part in more involved outreach activities.

I’ve done a fair bit of outreach myself. I have an academic twitter account that I use alongside this website to discuss my research and generally share information about doing a physical geography PhD. I also got involved in a larger outreach event when I helped out on the ‘Vanishing Glaciers of Everest’ stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2015. I’ve enjoyed all the outreach that I’ve been involved in so far, particularly chatting to school children and the general public at the Royal Society. This got me thinking about one aspect of outreach that I’d never done: a school visit.

I left for Svalbard immediately after the Royal Society Exhibition and kind of forgot about the whole school visit idea. That was until I got an email from the UK Polar Network asking for volunteers to visit a class of 6 and 7 year olds in Sheffield. How convenient for me! Naomi, a lecturer from Sheffield Hallam University, had also responded to the email and we decided to team up.

This year is the centenary of Shackleton’s epic Endurance expedition to Antarctica (I thoroughly recommend that you read Shackleton’s diary, but if you’re short on time check out the Wikipedia page). To mark this anniversary, loads of schools in the UK are doing projects on exploration and science in the Polar Regions. Our Sheffield school was doing just this and wanted us to help the kids see how the kit required for polar expeditioning has changed in the hundred years since Shackleton and Scott.

All very well but what did we have to do for this outreach visit? We started by contacting the teacher to work out exactly what she wanted from us, did a spot of research and then got together for a planning session. We decided to start with a quick Arctic or Antarctic quiz, featuring a few curve balls like Santa and the cast of Frozen (both of these live in the Arctic, if you were wondering). The kids were very good at this game and had clearly done their research – both Naomi and I found them far more enthusiastic than our undergraduates usually are!

Next we moved on to the real gist of the session – modern expeditioning kit. This was my time to shine (or swelter as it turned out). I had come dressed for a summer’s day in the field in Svalbard and it was the kids’ job to help me ‘upgrade’ to my full Antarctic wardrobe. This was a right laugh and involved a lot of discussion about all the layers I was donning and what the point of each garment was. I ended up absolutely dying wearing five layers, including a down jacket and fleece trousers, plus hat, gloves, mountain boots, buff etc in a toasty warm primary school that must have been heated to a good 22 or 23oC. Needless to say I striped back to my base layer and hiking trousers after less than 5 minutes!

We finished up the session with an excellent powerpoint by Naomi on the day-to-day practicalities of fieldwork. This was designed to answer questions about essentials like food and sleeping arrangements, plus the kids’ favourite: where do you go to the toilet? Hopefully this helped a lot with their task for later that day, which was to plan their own polar expedition and work out what equipment they would need to bring. The teacher was certainly pleased that we’d covered the subject area she wanted, so I guess it was a job well done.

I definitely enjoyed this new kind of outreach activity and would certainly do more school visits in future. The whole thing probably took up half a working day, including the visit itself as well as meeting Naomi to plan it, and one evening of researching and making powerpoints. So really not a major time commitment and I’d say it was worthwhile. Something a bit different to break up the monotony of writing my literature review plus it looks great on your C.V. and, most importantly it was a lot of fun!

p.s. the image for this post is a shot I took during a scientific expedition to West Antarctica. Snowmobiles are often essential pieces of kit for research in the polar regions!

‘Vanishing Glaciers of Everest’: The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2015

Every summer the The Royal Society hosts a public exhibition of cutting edge science in its London headquarters and this year I was lucky enough to get the chance to take part as part of the presenting team for the ‘Vanishing Glaciers of Everest’ stand.

Our stand was the brainchild of Ann Rowan, a research fellow at Sheffield, and involved the collaboration of five UK universities: Sheffield, Aberystwyth, Leeds, Hertfordshire and Northumbria. Because of the links to my own research group, the Sheffield ICERS (ice & climate), I was drafted in as an additional presenter to help out the Himalayan glacier specialists.

The aim of the exhibition is to engage the public and particularly school children with on-going science across all disciplines. There is a huge variety of stands – ours was the only geography representative and we were competing with everything from nuclear fusion and biomedical science through to plasma rockets and archaeology. There were some fantastic stands on display, most with some sort of interactive element that you could have a play with.

For our part, the main interactive attraction of the ‘Vanishing glaciers’ stand was a big old block of ice that was melting happily and aided us in explaining the variables that affect glacial melt rates. Thankfully the weather was obligingly hot so our ice block rapidly rounded off and started to look convincingly like it was disappearing. The presence of a nice cold block of ice that you could touch turned out to be a big draw in itself as temperatures in central London hit 36oC! Cue all the glaciologists whinging about being too hot. Temperatures around freezing are much more our ideal habitat.

Whilst the ice block was a nice draw, we also had a fantastic stand covered with information and photos, as well as some great 3D images and a 3D printed map of Mount Everest & its environs.

All this stuff was designed to get people talking and asking us questions. This worked magnificently and gave our presenting team of scientists the opportunity to explain how glacier mass balance works and to discuss the impact that future climate change might have on the Himalayan glaciers and hence the rivers & water resources of the Indian Subcontinent and Southern China. Because of the informal nature of the event, visitors also got the chance to ask us about all sorts of other aspects of glaciology. Being more of a palaeoglacial and polar specialist this was great for me because I often got the chance to bring in a little of my own area of expertise into the discussion.

All in all, I had a great time presenting and would thoroughly recommend the event to other scientists. It’s particularly good for us PhD students to have an opportunity to do a bit of outreach and to practice communicating science to a non-technical audience. I certainly learned a lot and I think that it’s very important to get out there and talk to ‘normal’ people about science. It was great to get so much engagement from our visitors and to be asked so many interesting questions.

Even if you don’t find yourself presenting I would still suggest that you go along and have a look at next year’s exhibition. There are some fantastic stands and you’ll certainly learn something new and interesting. Plus you might even get the chance to do a bit of science celebrity spotting – we had the likes of Prof Brian Cox visiting when I was there!

(Thanks to Ann Rowan and Mike Hambrey for the use of their photos. See photo captions for individual credits.)

For more detailed information about the science behind our stand, check out the the ‘Glaciers online’ website: