The “Zoom with a PhD student in biology” model allows teachers to book a doctoral student for a Zoom presentation and question-and-answer session with their students.

“This is a simple model for collaboration that has benefits both for upper secondary school students and teachers, and for PhD students,” says Ammie Berglund, director of the Swedish Centre for School Biology.

After an initial pilot round, the project has continued in autumn 2022, now in cooperation with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The autumn 2022 round was slightly larger, offering upper secondary school teachers a choice of ten different PhD student projects.

The Swedish Centre for School Biology is based at Uppsala University but has a national mandate to support teachers of biology and natural science subjects in preschool, primary school, secondary school and adult education.

Benefits everyone involved

Doctoral students who are interested in participating write a brief summary of their research for publication on the Swedish Centre for School Biology website. Upper secondary school teachers can then register their interest in participating and indicate which presentations they would prefer. After that, a match is made and the doctoral student meets the upper secondary school students and their teacher on Zoom.

Karla Münzner, a doctoral student in limnology at the Department of Ecology and Genetics, has participated and given presentations both in the pilot round and in autumn 2022.

“It’s an excellent way for a doctoral student to get started with outreach activities,” she says. “The format is flexible, you can talk about your own research or research in your field in general, or what your job is like, you can let the students interpret your graphs, discuss research ethics or whatever their teacher and you think will be most interesting for the students.”

“This model has a win-win effect for everyone involved,” says Berglund. “The upper secondary school students gain inspiring insights into a subject as well as a picture of higher education and possible careers in research, the teachers get an inspiring activity linked to current research, and doctoral students have a chance to improve their communication skills.”

Zoom effective

The idea of “Zoom with a PhD student” originated at the National Resource Center for Chemistry Teachers at the beginning of the pandemic. They have a similar national mandate to the Swedish Centre for School Biology.

“There are several advantages of arranging the meeting via Zoom. Zoom makes it accessible nationwide and it’s easier to set up a meeting when you can avoid travel time. Travel would also be a cost and require more administration,” Berglund adds.

Berglund also notes that when implementing the model, it has been an advantage that they already have networks and channels for offering teachers this opportunity.

Positive evaluation

They have evaluated the pilot round and the initiative has generally been well received, by teachers, students and the doctoral students alike.

“I got much better at talking about my research in Swedish,” Karla Münzner says. “It’s also good practice for conference presentations and grant applications, you find many ways to talk about your research without using too many technical terms or showing too many graphs. I also learned to identify the charts that convey my research findings and message best, which is really helpful now when I’m preparing to defend my doctoral thesis.”

Potential improvements

Of course, there are also things that could be developed and improved.

“We have realised that we need to have clearer procedures, for example, for feedback from doctoral students after they have contacted the teachers out in the upper secondary schools,” Berglund says. “The doctoral students have also made it clear that they would like to have more meetings with school students, they learn new things in the meetings and are keen to put what they have learnt into practice immediately at new meetings.”

Berglund also mentions that it is important to try to set up Zoom meetings where every student is logged in on their own computer.

“If the class is on a large screen it’s harder for the doctoral student to gauge the group’s reactions and more difficult for the students to ask questions.”

They have decided to call all doctoral students who register an interest to an information meeting.

“Some doctoral students have felt rather unsure, and then inspiration from doctoral students who have been involved before can play a big role. It’s also important that the doctoral students’ supervisors support them in this process,” Berglund says.

Recommended for doctoral students

Asked whether she would recommend other doctoral students to take part, Karla Münzner is quick to answer in the affirmative.

“Absolutely,” Münzner replies. “You get a chance to talk to teachers and students who are already interested in your research field. It doesn’t take long to prepare, I spent about half a day communicating with the teacher, doing a Zoom test and preparing what I was going to talk about. And it improves your ability to communicate.”

Münzner elaborates on her recommendation:

“You might think your subject isn’t interesting enough or that it’s difficult to explain it in depth to a non-academic audience, but I think that’s exactly what makes it appealing for students, they get to learn more fundamental research and analysis methods that are not usually brought up at school. I also think you can gain a lot of inspiration from the questions the students and teachers ask and build up your confidence as a presenter,” Münzner concludes.