Engineering Education Podcast

« Previous · Next »

Visiting Engineers Virtually

Latest Episode

Episode cover art

Visiting Engineers Virtually

Season 2 · Episode 27

Previous Episodes

Episode cover art

Digital Pop Culture for STEM

Season 2 · Episode 26
Episode cover art

Mexico vs. USA

Season 2 · Episode 25

You Might Also Like...


How can teachers expose their students to more engineering role models? What do they do if they don’t have time to arrange visits and field trips? That’s where Sarah McAnulty comes in. Sarah is a biology PhD student who also recently started Skype a Scientist, which is a free program to match scientists and engineers with K-12 classrooms. Sarah spoke with us about how the program helps more students get authentic interactions with STEM professionals.

Our closing music is called “I Miss You (Part 2)” by Soirée, used with permission, and you can find more of Soirée’s music on SoundCloud, user soireebeats.

Listen to the Engineering Word Of The Day podcast. Also check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


Pius Wong  0:00 

This is The K12 Engineering Education podcast for October 2nd, 2017.


If you are a teacher looking for an engineer to talk with your students, or if you're an engineer looking to share what you know with students, then today's guest is trying to find you. I'm Pius Wong. My guest is Sarah McAnulty, a PhD student and scientist in biology at the University of Connecticut. And in her spare time, Sarah runs a program called Skype a Scientist that virtually connects classrooms, scientists, and engineers. Hear her talk about it next.


Hi, Sarah.


Sarah McAnulty  0:45 

Hi, thanks for having me.


Pius Wong  0:47 

I am really happy to have you because you have started a program called Skype a Scientist, and I wanted to talk to you about that a little bit. But real briefly, could you just introduce yourself and what you do in general?


Sarah McAnulty  0:58 

Yeah, sure. So I am a PhD student at the University of Connecticut. I work with squid biology. So I work on these Hawaiian bobtail squid for most of my job. But I also organize this program, Skype a Scientist, pretty much in my spare time when I can.


Pius Wong  1:13 

Cool. And do you have a lot of time for that?


Sarah McAnulty  1:16 

I mean, time management is helpful. So I have some spare time, more spare time over the summer. But I usually am teaching and doing science for most of the hours that I'm awake.


Pius Wong  1:29 

Wow. And so in addition to all that you're running this program called Skype a Scientist. And if the engineering teachers or other engineers who are listening don't know what that is, how would you describe it to them?


Sarah McAnulty  1:40 

It's basically a program that just matches scientists from all different fields with classrooms across the country and really across the world. The point of the program is just to get students to be able to interact with a real scientist in their classrooms for about a half hour to an hour. I just ask questions that they think they'd like to know the answers to. So the scientists will tell the teacher generally what they do, and what type of scientist they are, what they work on. And then the teacher will prepare the students. Give them a little information about what type of scientists they're about to talk to. This could also be an engineer, or a doctor, a veterinarian, depending on what the teacher asks for. And then the scientist or engineer, what have you, will Skype in and then just chat with the students and kind of have a conversation. There's a lot of resources online for lectures by scientists for this group. But we really wanted to have an actual interaction where the students can feel like they're being heard and really interact -- have a personal connection with a scientist.


Pius Wong  2:44 

That's actually interesting that you mention that. Do you also record any of the interactions that you have?


Sarah McAnulty  2:48 

We haven't yet, but we we are thinking about doing that in the future. And we all have also thought about just posting videos on the website of scientists giving a little spiel about what they do. But I'm not sure it'll be as interesting to people to see the question and answer sessions as it is to be involved in a question and answer session. And we've had like 1500 scientists or more -- I think we're up to 1551 or something signed up. So we have a lot of energy in the scientific community in wanting to connect with people. So there's no shortage of scientists to get involved. So if you want to have a session, just ask, and we can set it up.


Pius Wong  3:29 

Yeah, that was one of the questions I was thinking of. Basically, who's involved? It sounds like a lot of scientists. And you also mentioned engineers and doctors and other STEM professionals.


Sarah McAnulty  3:38 



Pius Wong  3:39 

Are you still growing then if you already have this team behind you?


Sarah McAnulty  3:43 

Yeah, I mean, in terms of organization, it's basically just me and one software engineer, and my best friend, David Jenkins, who helped me organize the website and everything. But that's in terms of the Skype a Scientist team. But this program couldn't exist without the 1500 scientists that are actually going into classrooms and talking to people. So we're getting scientists sign up -- maybe like five to ten a day will sign up. They hear about it through Facebook or from Twitter. And so our numbers continue to go up. But in terms of classrooms, I think we have about 1000 signed up so far. So we can reach about 5000 classrooms right now. When a scientist signs up, they tell me how many classrooms they want to volunteer for, for the fall semester. And given those numbers, yeah, I think, like 5500, something like that, we can reach. Yeah, we can really talk to a lot of people. The real hurdle that I'm facing right now is trying to get the word out to teachers. And hopefully this podcast will help with that.


Pius Wong  4:48 

Yeah, hopefully. I do know that the engineering teachers I've spoken to personally, they've always want students to interact with professional engineers and scientists, and if they do it over Skype, I think that'd be amazing.


Sarah McAnulty  5:02 



Pius Wong  5:03 

So logistically, could you walk me through it? If a teacher was listening, and they want to know how is this really going to work? Because they're always complaining also about, I don't have any time. How would they get involved in this, and what's involved?


Sarah McAnulty  5:15 

The signup process is pretty easy. So you go to www.skypeascientist.com, and for whatever reason on some browsers, you actually need the www, which is a pretty 1990s kind of thing to need. But for whatever reason, that's the case. So make sure you put that in there. And then just click the "For teachers" tab, and you'll click a sign up button. And that'll bring you to a Google form, and just put in information for your classroom. Tell the form what kind of STEM professional you'd like to talk to you. And then hit submit, and you should submit one form for every session you want to have. So let's say your eighth graders want to talk to one doctor, one engineer, and one marine biologist, or one marine biologist, one microbiologist, whatever. You just fill out multiple forms, and every form you fill out will be equivalent to one classroom session. And pretty much from there, you get matched. And then the scientists will get your contact information and you'll get the scientist contact information. And then you and your scientist or engineer will communicate with each other and set up a time and a day that your session will take place.


Pius Wong  6:25 

It sounds a lot like Tinder, just have to say.


Sarah McAnulty  6:29 

That's kind of true. Although you don't get to reject any scientists.


Pius Wong  6:32 

You don't swipe left or right.


Sarah McAnulty  6:33 

You don't swipe on the scientists. But yeah, it's definitely a matching, maybe more like, I don't know, match.com. I've never used right, but perhaps.


Pius Wong  6:39 

Yeah, but that's actually really neat. I didn't think about that. But the analogy is like, right there in my imagination now. So in terms of the schools involved, you said you're trying to expand and reach more people. Is there a type of school or type of student that you think the program is best for? Or is it really for any level, any age?


Sarah McAnulty  6:59 

It's really for any school. I don't think that necessarily these are sessions are only for, like, AP classes or something like that. I think that any level of student, in terms of age or advancement level would be good for this, because one of the real things that we wanted to try to accomplish with this program is just getting science more into the consciousnesses of general people. And we don't want to only hit students that would already be interested in science anyway. So if you have a group of pretty unengaged students, this might help them get a little bit more jazzed about science. We're totally willing to talk to those kids.


Pius Wong  7:39 

Okay. Yeah, it sounds like maybe even museums or after-school programs or something might be interested. Is that cool, too?


Sarah McAnulty  7:44 

Yeah, definitely. We'll take pretty much anything. We haven't had any adult clubs sign up so far. But we would -- that would be fine. If you have like a reading group at a library or like a Lions Club or Rotary Club. That'll be fine too. We've had Girl Scout troops sign up, a couple different after school programs. We've had like a Women in STEM after-school club, which I'm so happy exists at all. They signed up for a session, which is pretty cool. And yeah, I think some librarians have signed up to do after-school stuff as well. So we're flexible.


Pius Wong  8:17 

Awesome. Then on the STEM professional side, is there a vetting process? How do the teachers know that they're getting quality?


Sarah McAnulty  8:24 

We ask them to tell us what university -- or in some cases it's company. So we have industry professionals, as well, who tells they're associated with. We generally look for a .edu or professional email account. But we don't interview the scientists, because I'm really just doing this by myself, and I don't have to talk to 1500 people, but we ask them to give a little five-word spiel about what they do. So I guess it is technically possible that someone who knows the right words could sign up, but we haven't had that happen yet. We had like 800 sessions in the spring semester, and we didn't have any complaints about, like, rogue people coming in. Although I can't give you a money-back guarantee. There's no money in this at all. But yeah, we hope that doesn't happen.


Pius Wong  9:14 

No, but it sounds like there's at least some vetting process, because oftentimes, teachers themselves, when they're looking for them on their own, they run into even worse problems, because they might not know anybody. So I think that Skype a Scientist still sounds really useful. And I wanted to ask, so why are you personally doing this? I know that in general, you said the mission is to kind of spread interest in these fields, but what made you want to start this?


Sarah McAnulty  9:39 

So it was January, and I was getting kind of bummed out. There's a lot of anti-science rhetoric going around in the country. And I was just like, man -- so often you hear kind of like conspiracy theorists say things like: they have a cure for cancer, but they're just hiding it. This crazy stuff. Like anti-global warming. It's just sort of disheartening. And I sometimes just think, man, if they just met one of us and got a sense of who scientists really are, we're not these like, crazy, wild-haired guys in the tall castle. We're just regular people. Maybe they'd be more willing to trust us or more inclined to trust us. So I think that personal connections with scientists could really go a long way, just in fostering trust with people. So we were kind of brainstorming, like, Okay, well, how can we do this on a big scale? We thought the internet might be good, partially because scientists are pretty busy people. And I wanted to develop a program where scientists could participate and talk to people outside of science without having to leave their lab at all. And so just little 30-minute commitments are pretty easy for anybody to do. And we also wanted to get to areas of the country and the world where people wouldn't naturally run into scientists in their everyday life. So in cities you have science museums, you have universities, but in the middle of nowhere in Indiana or Kansas or whatever, that may not be a thing that you could naturally find without having to go on a three hour road trip or whatever.


Pius Wong  11:11 



Sarah McAnulty  11:11 

So we wanted to reach these populations.


Pius Wong  11:13 

That's awesome. And it makes me think that, also, people could experience different types of science that they never would have gotten into. I guess you said you're in squid


Sarah McAnulty  11:21 



Pius Wong  11:21 

That's something that I'm sure that a lot of Texas people aren't going to see. There's not a lot of squid floating around in the middle of our state.


Sarah McAnulty  11:29 

For sure.


Pius Wong  11:29 

What's the future of the program, then? I know it's kind of this volunteer thing that you're doing because it's fulfilling and stuff, but what do you envision happening with it?


Sarah McAnulty  11:39 

Last semester, I had matched every scientist and classroom by hand, which took a long time. And now we have this computer program that will do it for us. So in terms of the amount of time it takes for me, it's it's gone down a lot, which is really great, because it's allowed me to expand the program to a lot more people. Thankfully it's not too terribly much of my time, or at least I hope it won't be. It'll be answering emails and kind of putting out little fires. So I hope to just kind of keep it going where it is and get more people enrolled and hearing about it, and keep it where it is in terms of scope, just with more numbers of people.


Pius Wong  12:17 

Okay. And Sarah, I'm just going to remind anyone listening that even though it is called Skype a Scientist, you had said that engineers are perfectly welcome and are already involved, right?


Sarah McAnulty  12:26 

Yeah, absolutely.


Pius Wong  12:27 

Okay, cool. And are there any other things that people should know about the program? Maybe how to contact you, or if they have any questions, anything like that?


Sarah McAnulty  12:35 

Yeah, so I would encourage everyone to read through the website. There's not a ton of stuff on there. So you can probably knock it out in like five, ten minutes. But if you have any questions in addition to the frequently asked questions and all that, just shoot me an email at skypeascientist@gmail.com, and you know, we can accommodate any kind of different requests. Like if you need somebody who speak sign language, we have a couple signers within the scientists, but the computer program won't be able to handle that. So we have to kind of do it outside of the computer software. So if you have any niche requests, just email me, and we'll try to set that up. Yeah, we encourage everyone to apply -- and not apply. Just sign up, and you'll inevitably get in.


Pius Wong  13:19 

All right. Thank you so much, Sarah, and I will be hopefully keeping track of what's going on with the program.


Sarah McAnulty  13:25 

Okay, great. Thanks.


Pius Wong  13:29 

Thanks once again to Sarah McAnulty for speaking. For notes, links, and transcripts related to this episode or others, please visit the show website: k12engineering.net. And leave a rating and review on iTunes or Stitcher, and follow the show on Facebook or other social media. Finally, you can financially support this show by donating on Patreon at patreon.com/pioslabs. That's patreon.com/pioslabs.


Our closing music for this episode is called "I Miss You" by Soiree and you can find more of his music on Soundcloud under the username Soireebeats. Or just check out the show notes for this episode, and you can find a link to it. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio, Pios Labs. Everyone, thank you once again for listening, and please tune in again.


It's the beginning of October here, and I just have to say once again, thank you so much to the supporters of this show, including and especially the supporters of this show on Patreon. And I mentioned the link before. It's patreon.com/pioslabs, but basically you make this show possible. You help pay for the internet that runs everything and you help share the show with others. And I appreciate it. So, that's all. Thanks.