Explaining science to kids builds vital career skills

by BESTies Janani Hariharan and Cassi Wattenburger, both PhD grad students in the School of Integrative Plant Sciences — Soil and Crop Sciences Section.

Communicating science to an audience of non-scientists is hard enough when they are adults, but what if your audience is a group of children?  This was the dilemma we faced when we volunteered to sign-up for the 2018 USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC.  The conference occupied two floors of the Walter E. Washington Conference Center.  It featured hundreds of booths, spanning NASA’s projections of city lights on a giant globe to a booth that let you touch a real pig’s inflated lung.  The event and venue were thoroughly awe-inspiring, and it was exciting to be part of something so large and all-encompassing.  Participating also gave us a lot of hope to see the different ways in which people were trying to make STEM appealing and accessible to kids.

Glowing desmid surrounded by Spirulina. Photo by authors.

Our booth had a rotating display of cool microbes.  We switched among protists and bacteria in the termite gut (Trichonympha, Spirochetes), root nodules (Rhizobium), lichen (fungi, algae), and some aquatic microorganisms such as SpirulinaAnabaena, diatoms and desmids.  The last samples were undoubtedly the icing on the cake, and they brought out the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, especially when we explained that they could perform photosynthesis and probably ‘taught’ plants how to perform this reaction.  This reminded us a bit of how we got into microbiology in the first place, by looking at stunningly beautiful slides under the microscope. benefits of doing outreach, particularly extended trips such as this one, may not seem obvious at first. So, why is this important to you, as a busy grad student or postdoc?

Summarizing your research in simple words in a short amount of time is a learned skill.  You have to be prepared to offer simple (though not inaccurate) explanations for complex phenomena, or you’ll see their eyes glaze over.  If you can explain basic scientific principles to a kid, you stand a great chance at succeeding with another scientist, policy worker, politician, or adult layman.

Kids can really get excited about science if you communicate in in ways they can understand. Photo by authors.

Conversations work better than a lecture.  Most kids don’t have the social graces to fake interest or pretend like they understand what you’re talking about.  We found that starting with a “Do you know what bacteria are?” or “Have you ever seen a lichen?” usually sparks more interest and opens the floor to dialogue.  These conversation starters also work well with poster presentations at conferences because of the varied backgrounds and different knowledge bases among attendees.

Think on your feet.  You’d be amazed at some of the insightful questions children and their parents can ask!  Being caught off-guard, and being able to responding gracefully, is great practice for when it happens in your work.

Don’t take it personally!  No matter how enthusiastic or encouraging you are, some kids are just not going to engage.  Your audience at a poster or talk can be a mixture of rapt and nodding-off faces too.

Some kids like to take the time to look through microscopes, others don’t. Photo by authors.

Get comfortable with, well, ‘being comfortable.‘  Being engaged and hands-on for hours at a time can be draining, albeit satisfying, especially as an introvert.  It can be necessary to settle in for some quiet time afterwards, at the expense of networking or sightseeing.  Extended outreach events are a great way to get comfortable relaxing while traveling for work, to preserve both sanity and endurance.

You might just discover alternate career paths that were previously unappealing, like teaching.  If you’re already a BESTie, then you’re probably someone who’s open to new experiences anyway!

An earlier version of this blog post appeared here.

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