Top Five Tips for Talking to Kids about Science
A how-to guide for inspiring the next generation of scientists
I love talking to other people about science! As a STEM Ambassador, I’m passionate about going into local schools and encouraging the next generation of drug discovery scientists. However, explaining scientific research to children and young people can be really, really challenging! Check out this ebook, Jill & Doug and the Whompwhompoulus Bug, which talks about the process of how medicines are discovered, tested, and approved.
Here’s my Top 5 tips for talking to kids about science:
1. Ask questions.
I wholeheartedly believe that being a good scientist is not necessarily about what you know, but about how you think. Science is a practical and creative subject – of course learning the theory is important, but being inquisitive and knowing how to solve problems are requirements of the best scientists. Rather than simply telling the child about the research, ask questions to encourage them to work things out for themselves. If something is wrong, provide additional information to guide them in the right direction. Encouraging curiosity and letting conversations be driven by the child’s interest are key when increasing engagement with science.
2. Don’t oversimplify the science.
Every year in chemistry class at school, we were told that something we’d learned the previous year was incorrect. Children are often willing to accept the most complex scientific principles, so try to clearly explain the underlying theory and take-home messages of your work without oversimplifying the science. Getting the right balance is tricky, but if you start simple and are checking their understanding as you go, you soon get a feel for the appropriate level of complexity.
3. Choose your words wisely.
Often it’s not the science that’s inaccessible to young minds, but the endless jargon and complex vocabulary used in research. Even experienced scientists can struggle to read a paper in an unfamiliar field! Make sure to clearly explain any unfamiliar terms and avoid using them if possible!
That being said, it’s still important to introduce the language we use. My personal favourites when running kitchen science experiments are to ask what the child thinks will happen (“what’s your hypothesis?”) and then whether they were right (“what’s your conclusion?”). Combining technical terms with their non-scientific equivalents (“making observations” vs “what does it look like?”) is a great way to introduce the right vocabulary without making the child overwhelmed.
4. Make it relatable.
Research has shown that engagement in scientific subjects is increased when children can directly relate to the scientific principles being taught and see their impact in their day-to-day lives. I love hearing about engineers who talk about the structural integrity of different chocolate bars, and physicists who talk about the forces involved in wearing different shoes for different sports. Demonstrating the applications of the theory is important in showing young people that science is everywhere!
It’s hard to visualise abstract scientific concepts, especially when talking about things we can’t see with the naked eye, so use analogies! Build on existing experiences the child has from everyday life, and think about linking the science you’re discussing to anything they’ve recently learned at school.
5. Be prepared for difficult questions.
When I asked a class of 11-year olds how they think medicines are made, I will never forget the strong-minded answer from one girl: “You test them on animals which is WRONG!” The hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer about my work have come from non-scientists. In drug discovery, care of our animals and their responsible use in research is our priority, and conveying this message to the general public is also part of our responsibility as scientists.
Anyone involved with scientific engagement will tell you that talking to children is one of the most difficult yet rewarding experiences we have. Children are often very imaginative and can provide welcome inspiration to solving your own scientific projects. More than anything, it often reminds me why I decided to be a scientist in the first place – to be curious and have fun!