The idea of communicating science to kids is daunting for many researchers, but it brings substantial benefits – not only to the kids and communities but also to the researchers themselves.

Dan Csontos & Nellie Linander

How can you explain complex science to an audience that ranges from toddlers to pre-teens? Even if it were possible, is it worth your effort? The answer from us at Elevate is a resounding yes, because of (at least) three reasons.

Why do it

First, science outreach is vital in general, especially for children. It serves to trigger the curiosity of children about the world around them and can inspire them to ask questions. It can thus motivate them to participate actively in their science education at school.

Second, science outreach is important also for society in a broader sense because well-informed citizens can better navigate and participate in democratic processes and engage with various societal stakeholders.

Third, science outreach can also be of benefit to the researchers themselves! There is not an audience that is more honest than one consisting of kids. The questions they ask are honest and unbiased. Crucially, they do not suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’ that not only academics but also generally well-informed adults suffer from. Unlike adults, children are not able to fill in the blanks by using their pre-existing knowledge, which places a high demand on your narrative proficiency. They will quickly catch you off guard if you have not adapted the language to their vocabulary. And you will quickly lose their interest if you are not able to zoom out from your specialty field and find touch points with the kids’ experiences.

Thus, practising talking about your science to an audience of children can:

1

compel you to zoom out and think about the bigger-picture context for your research
2

help you hone your presentation skills in front of the toughest audience you could imagine – presenting at conferences is child’s play in comparison
3

provide you with the opportunity to ignite the spark of curiosity in the next generation.

It is not easy, but we think it’s well worth the effort.

How to do it

How do you then go about it? By preparing extensively, carefully developing a narrative that’s adapted to the age of the children, having an engaging delivery that inasmuch possible uses your body, props and the room itself, and being able to improvise on the spot.

To test out these techniques, recently our colleague Nellie visited the tiny Osby library – situated in an equally tiny village of the same name – to give a scientific seminar on how bumblebees control their flight. The organizers had prepared ‘fika’ and created a cozy setting for the seminar, with chairs and cushions surrounding the on-the-floor stage at the heart of the library.

Parents and kids were eager to join, some waiting at the library before it opened on this sunny autumn day.

The audience was diverse, with children ranging from 3 to 11 years of age. What a challenge to engage kids in such an age range for the better part of half an hour!

But Nellie had put in a lot of preparation for this seminar, drawing on her extensive experience in science outreach as well as the techniques developed at Elevate. She deftly combined narrative techniques with an engaging delivery that involved dressing up, props and very dynamic speech and body language.

Vital to science outreach is engaging the audience and gauging its comprehension from time to time. When it comes to an audience of kids, it is especially crucial to listen, engage and, if needed, improvise and adapt the delivery on the go, something that Nellie did skilfully throughout the seminar. She captured the attention of the audience from the get-go by asking questions and made sure that all were involved from the outset.

Nellie then proceeded to gradually introduce the topic of the talk from a big-picture perspective by introducing herself and her role as a researcher, asking questions to the kids and explaining to them what researchers do. Then, she introduced the topic of the seminar by sharing and inviting anecdotes related to bumblebees to relate the seminar to something the audience was familiar with. Finally, she proceeded to telling the audience about her own research – understanding flight control in bees.

Key science outreach techniques

Throughout the seminar, Nellie used three key techniques to adapt the seminar to her young audience:

First, she developed an engaging narrative that was carefully adapted to the children in terms of content and language. Commonly understood words replaced technical ones where possible. And complex information was explained visually or with the help of anecdotes or metaphors. Nellie also used simple slides to complement the narrative, relying on only pictures and videos to illustrate key points.

Second, Nellie used herself and props to complement the narrative. She dressed as a bumblebee, using various parts of the costume to illustrate the main points about the bumblebee anatomy and mechanics of flight. She used soft toys and flowers to further illustrate the role of bumblebees as pollinators and how they navigate in their environment. She also brought with her a box, similar to the ones she used in her research, containing bumblebees (not live ones, for obvious reasons!), including a queen. The kids were invited to come up after the seminar and investigate this box and ask questions.

Third, Nellie was very dynamic in her delivery, using the entire room, modulating her voice and crouching to speak at the height of the children. The latter is particularly effective in increasing audience engagement during question time and discussions.

Do you want to learn how you can get your own audiences buzzing? Have a look at the video edit we did of Nellie’s seminar to get inspired. And get in touch with us to book a workshop for your institution or a one-on-one coaching session where we can help you develop your own narrative and style of communicating your research to a young audience. We look forward to hearing from you!