The Next Generation of Scientists: Kids and Ecologists
Young children may spend many hours a day in daycare and preschool settings. Many daycare centers strive to include creative opportunities for children to interact with nature and the environment around them, but few early childhood workers are trained in science or nature study.
Many academic scientists enter their own children into local or university childcare programs while they teach or work in laboratories, and so have easy access to children and childcare workers. Thus, linking academic ecologists with the next generation of potential scientists in childcare centers can be an excellent pathway for a Research Ambassador.
Program Director Nalini Nadkarni approached a campus daycare staff-member who had taken care of her own children, inquiring if she could offer some advice about speaking to young audiences. An initial discussion about parenting magazines evolved into regular and productive opportunities for Research Ambassador Fellows to speak to group of ten 4-5 year olds at the Evergreen State College Campus Children’s Center.
Outcomes & Lessons Learned
Speaking to children requires scientists to boil their work down to the essentials. When speaking with children, scientists must simplify concepts to make them accessible to children with limited exposure to science, scientific language, and the written word. Scientists are most successful with this audience if they can get the attention of the audience with the ‘hook’ of intriguing photos, stories, and props.
Children are keen on hands on activities, and the Research Ambassadors who incorporated the making of mud pies, the exploration of pond water were well received. The Campus Children’s Center was well-supplied with tubs, art and office supplies, as well as sinks, towels, and other materials for “messy” nature play.
The presence of childcare centers in many communities creates the possibility for a great number of scientists to speak to those that provide for their children and develop a venue for outreach. Children are also good audiences to field-test basic explanations of your work for other non-scientist audiences.
Our sessions with children took place at the Evergreen State College Campus Children’s Center. Below are descriptions of Research Ambassador Fellow activies:
Molly Mehling introduced the children to aquatic macroinvertebrates through photographs. She also brought tubs of pond water into the classroom, allowing the children to look at and identify the animals in-person.
Aurora MacRae-Crerar explained her field of studying microbes in the soil by demonstrating the carbon dioxide produced by yeast (see Science of Bread activity). We also used a microscope connected to a laptop, camera, and projector, enabling Aurora to project images of bacteria, demonstrating to the children how there are so many kinds of bacteria.
Rebecca Trueman connected with the children by writing a poem which told a story of things happening in Biosphere 2, where she studied terrestrial carbon sequestration by different species. Incorporating this story with pictures of curious looking creatures really captured the attention of the children.
Denise Bruesewitz shared her love of mud with the children as she demonstrated that mud contains nutrients that plants need to ‘eat’ to grow strong. The children enthusiastically made their own mud and sang Mud, Mud Glorious Mud. A photographer was on hand to document the children’s exploration of mud.
In his research, Alan Wilson investigates the role of daphnia and other aquatic organisms in reducing algae populations in freshwater ecosystems. With the children, Alan demonstrated the role of daphnia by showing bottles of algae containing water with and without daphnia present. The bottle with daphnia inside it was much clearer than the bottle without daphnia, as the daphnia quickly consume algae.
With Doug Levey, the children performed surgery on plums, apples, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, and grapes, finding the fruits hidden within. With Doug, the children began developing an understanding of fruits providing seeds, and seeds generating new plants.