September 3, 2019
This year the AIA is putting out a call for its professional members to participate in the Skype a Scientist program. Over the summer we interviewed AIA Outreach and Education committee member Jen Thum about her past participation in the program to give our members a better idea of what to expect. Find out more information about joining the AIA’s Skype a Scientist effort here.
Jen Thum is an Egyptologist and museum educator currently serving as a curatorial fellow at the Harvard Art Museums. Thum completed her PhD dissertation, “Words in the Landscape: The Mechanics of Egyptian Royal Living-Rock Stelae” at Brown University in 2019. She started participating in the Skype a Scientist program in 2017 and has been matched with a dozen different classrooms to date.
Where are the classrooms you’ve Skyped with? What ages have you spoken with?
Washington state, Georgia, New York City, Missouri, Arkansas, Canada, and the UK. I’ve spoken with 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th grade classes—so roughly ages 7-12.
How do you prepare for a typical session?
I always start out by arranging a phone call with the teacher. I think it’s easier to get a handle on their expectations that way. The first question I ask is why they’ve requested to speak with an archaeologist (or an Egyptologist, or whatever the case may be). Sometimes the answer to that question is surprising: I once discovered that the teacher had confused archaeology with geology, but that she wanted her class to speak with me anyway. I was then able to supplement the session with some materials for the class to read or watch ahead of time, since they would otherwise have had little idea of what archaeology is. I also ask about the teacher’s overarching goals for the session—most want students to learn about the realities of our field, but one teacher asked me to convey the message that anyone, even from a rural community, can go to college if they want to. On the call we also discuss the format for questions (whether the teacher wants to collect them ahead of time and send them to me before the session, whether they want to assign one question per student, etc.) and whether the teacher feels that it makes sense to give the students a short reading or video ahead of time to prepare them. If the teacher has materials in mind already, then I ask to see them so that I can get a sense of what they know already; otherwise I suggest brief, basic resources on key terms (e.g. “artifact,” “stratigraphy”) to get them started. Finally, we agree on a date, time, and the platform we want to use. We also arrange to test the platform ahead of time to lessen the chance of technological hiccups.
How is a session usually structured?
I start by saying a bit about myself, what I do, where I work, and what I like best about archaeology. Just for 1-2 minutes. Then we usually launch into questions—either prepared ones vetted by the teacher or ones that occur as the conversation develops. Some sessions last 30 minutes, while others can be up to an hour. It just depends on how much time you and the teacher have.
What’s the best question you’ve been asked?
I have two. One was What are you currently working on? In answering this question I was able to give students the sense that archaeological work is always evolving and always ongoing, and I could slip in or reinforce some bigger concepts that I think are important to convey to a younger audience, such as the fact that archaeologists are more interested in how people lived than in shiny, rare, or “expensive” things. This question also gave me the chance to talk about how archaeologists work in teams, that we rely on each other’s expertise and cooperation to make a project successful. That’s a great lesson for students. The second question was Was there a big difference between the people in the past and people today? This one gave me a chance to counter some of those frustrating narratives about ancient people not being able to build or organize the large-scale projects of the past on their own (conspiracy theories about archaeology are rife on the Internet, and accessible to kids), and to talk about subjects such as diversity, community, and trial and error.
Have you experienced any technology glitches?
Yes, a couple of times, which is why it’s important to test your platform with the teacher beforehand. Once I connected to a classroom and they couldn’t hear me–but I could hear them! The kids came up past the camera and waved at me in turns until the problem was fixed. Everyone was pitching in with ideas to make it work. Once it was fixed, there was a resounding cheer in the classroom. It was pretty clear that the class was excited to speak with a real archaeologist!
How is Skype a Scientist rewarding?
Skype a Scientist has allowed me to reach students who might never visit a museum, archaeological site, historical society, or foreign country. And it makes our profession real and tangible to them: science and the study of the past suddenly become accessible, both in the literal sense–that archaeologists are real people who are willing to answer questions about our work–and in the sense that students feel these fields within reach for their own future studies.
If you are a professional member and interested in participating in Skype a Scientist, click here for helpful tips and how to sign up.