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9 tips for communicating science to children

I am hosting my first guest blogger! Read about #scicomm tactics that work for me as told by my husband, Billy Dunne.


I recently had the pleasure of joining Rachael at her "All About Bees" event at the Discovery Museums in Acton, MA. In the past five years, I've joined Rachael at three or four similar events, and I'm always impressed by how well she communicates science to young people.

What's her secret? I'll let you ask her that question. But here are 9 things that I've seen Rachael do that make her effective at communicating science to children.

1. Draw them in. Form should fit audience. If you're presenting a research poster to kids, then you've lost the battle before it starts. Think about what other options are available to you. How about a live demo? Or a video? Or a hands-on exercise? Don't be afraid to think outside the box here. The goal is to engage, and kids don't find posters and slide presentations particularly engaging. Rachael draws in her audience with an array of alternative communication methods, as detailed in tips #2-9.

2. Break it down. Simplify! When kids are your primary audience, they don't need to learn the nitty gritty details of your research methodology to learn and be inspired. Aim for the 30,000 foot view of your topic. Think about the key details of your topic that you'd like your audience to interact with, and cut the rest. In practice, this probably means focusing more on your study system and less on your experiments. When Rachael talks science with kids, she talks "All About Bees", not "The Mineral Preferences of Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) When Foraging for Water."

3. Blow it up. If your study system is small, then you need to think big. As a scientist, you may be quite comfortable with the microscopic or even the subatomic. But be honest, was that true when you were a kid? Probably not! So put yourself in the shoes of a child learner and think bigger! My high school physics teacher made a Newton's Cradle with bowling balls. Rachael uses microscopes to let kids discover what different parts of honey bees look like at 100x magnification (the stinger is a fan favorite with kids and adults!). She also uses macro photography to blow up the bulging eyes and fuzzy bottoms of her bees. Need more ideas? Visit your local children's museum and see which exhibits are the crowd favorites!

4. Use analogies. Association is powerful. If you can relate your subject to something your audience is already familiar with, then you help them build a connection to what you're trying to communicate. Kids love this. When you help them "get it" by relating your topic to something they know, you make them feel smart because in a way they already understand the concept you're attempting to convey (adults love this too by the way). Be smart with your analogies. Physicists, I wouldn't count on Shrodinger's Cat to be the analogy that wins kids over. Chemists, maybe swap out the Plum Pudding model for the Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Model. Rachael uses a trip to the grocery store as an analogy for honey bee foraging.

5. Speak their language. Kids don't speak jargon. And neither should you when communicating with kids (or the public in general). Nothing turns a child off of science faster than overuse of words that aren't familiar to them. Unfamiliar equates to inaccessible, which is the exact opposite of what you're aiming to achieve. Here's a tip: practice with a friend or family member who is not a scientist by trade. They will be a great at catching you using jargon that's not kid-friendly. Rachael constantly works to identify the jargon in her speech and replace it with kid-friendly alternatives. For example, she'll call honey bee brood "babies" and the hive their "home", at least until she's had the chance to define the more jargon-y terms to her audience.

6. Squat. Literally get down to their level. If you're trying to communicate with a child, especially on a 1:1 basis or in small groups, one of the best things you can do is lower yourself to their level. Parents know this. When playing with or comforting a child, parents and caretakers will naturally lower themselves to the child's height, or even sit on the floor with them. Towering over a child is reserved for discipline and showing authority. Think about your own interactions with children. Do you ever feel uncomfortably tall? Like a giant towering over them? How do you think the child feels? Rachael has the advantage of barely cresting 5 feet tall, but she'll still lower herself to meet a child at eye level — and it works every time!

7. Engage the senses. Not everyone is an auditory or a visual learner. This is especially true with children. Since children learn in different ways, it's a good idea to communicate in different ways. Is there a hands-on activity you can use as a demonstration? What opportunities might you have to engage the senses of taste and smell? Try to mix up your auditory and visual stimuli as well by introducing a sound or visual that surprises or captivates. Rachael is an expert on engaging the senses, as in these examples:

  • Touch: Trying on a beekeeper's hat and gloves to learn how they work

  • Taste: Taste-testing a variety of honeys to learn about plant diversity

  • Smell: Smelling a banana to learn how honey bees signal danger

  • Sight: Gazing at flowers under a blacklight to learn how flowers attract bees

  • Sound: Hearing a recording of honey bees to learn what they sound like when they're happy, and when they're not

  • Body movement: Dancing like a honey bee to learn about honey bee communication

8. Ask good questions. Kids tend to ask great questions. Asking questions is how kids make sense of their world, and is perhaps the best indicator that you as the science communicator are engaging them effectively. When asked a question, your first instinct might be to answer it fully. After all, you are the expert! Here's a different idea, as discussed by Rachael in her recent TEDxTufts talk, Embracing Science as a Verb: follow a question with another question. If a child asks why or how something works the way it does, trying asking why or how they think it works that way. Then watch their curious minds spin as they try to come up with an answer! Want to know Rachael's thoughts on asking children questions? Watch her talk!

9. Let them take it home. Kids love things that they can take home. Remember sand art? That industry thrived on this very fact. Your take-home item can likewise be something your audience makes, but it doesn't have to be. Even something as cheap and easy as a sticker or a button can create a memorable experience for a child. Perfect example: the Tufts University Library nailed it last year by leveraging the power of the button. Rachael has been known to get crafty with kids, for example making beeswax candles. She's also found success with buttons.

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