Dear Scientist, can you help me with a project?

Apr 01 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The above tweet brought up something I have been seeing a lot of recently as well. At some point during the semester I will usually receive a good number of requests to answer questions as a . Sometimes it'll be two or three and other years I'll get up to ten such requests in a concentrated burst. Some are short "feeler" emails looking to get a response and others include the whole question package.

I hit delete.

I get the idea. And I get that some people might be inclined to help out. We all make choices about our time and I made a choice to spend my outreach time on coordinated projects that are backed by resources and people engaged in reaching a wide audience. I made this choice because I am regularly inundated with minor outreach requests. I could probably spend 40hrs a week, or close, on those efforts if I accepted everything and endeavored to do them well.

Obviously, that make no sense, so I prioritize. First and foremost are the Broader Impacts goals of my NSF grants. After that I sometimes take on opportunities that might lead to even better Broader Impacts projects. Once I've taken care of that, I'm pretty much tapped out. Responding to some form letter that a high school student is spamming me with ranks really damn low on the totem pole.

However, the discussion following that tweet did bring up one solution that might be food for thought: there's an opportunity here to engage the teachers who are giving this class assignment. Whereas I'm not responding to your spam, I am MUCh more likely to visit a classroom and engage the WHOLE class in an activity. Counter-intuitively, I would spend more time on something that students might actually enjoy than the 10 minutes it would take me to answer their cookie-cutter questions so they can say they did the assignment. Maybe that starts a collaboration with the teacher that continues on? Maybe that encourages a good student to apply to my university?

If you want my feedback and answers, let's make it worth both our time.

5 responses so far

  • zb says:

    What kind of question? Are they questions like "How does the brain work?" Or what is the nitrogen concentration in the air?

    My response depends on the specificity of the question and my degree of expertise and the ease of answering the question. For most of the questions I'm an expert on the answer is too complicated to give quickly, and thus, isn't going to get answered unless I have some special reason for doing so (i.e. they've attracted my sympathy or interest).

    Is the uptick a result of the Google science fair?

  • csh says:

    This is the time of year IB students are starting their Extended Essays. Traffic might be increased because of that, too. I know my DD is hitting PubMed hard just trying to get her topic approved by her advisor this week 🙂

  • mytchondria says:

    The only way to get my attention these days is snail mail. Or a SWAT team. But you know how that is....amirite?

  • Jon C. Jensen says:

    While I understand (better than most HS students and maybe their teachers) that you have a busy, if not grueling, job as a junior faculty member, I can't help but note that you have an blog on a site with people who style themselves as "online science communicators". I would think a request for information would at least warrant a polite reply.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    death by a thousand cuts, dude.

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