SciComm Corner – Back to basics: Reaching children with research
Article written by Lauren Haigh
One trait that scientists and children share is their innate curiosity, and science and curiosity go hand in hand. But, unlike scientists, children aren’t immersed in scientific research.
Science is an important channel of knowledge and is inextricably linked to society. For example, many 21st Century challenges have their solutions rooted in science, while research is key to unravelling complex mysteries. Nurturing the development of the next generation of scientists should begin from an early age, forming strong foundations by establishing an interest and understanding of science, and more specifically scientific research, and the role it plays in our everyday lives. The importance of SciComm is already appreciated, with the need to widely transmit scientific ideas and knowledge recognised. Can SciComm play a role in making scientific research accessible to children?
The emphasis of SciComm is on making scientific research accessible to the layperson, which generally involves converting often complex concepts into easily digestible ideas. But, in order for children to understand research, significant simplification is required, along with ensuring the research is conveyed in an exciting and inspiring manner, so that children are engaged. Another important matter is thinking about who is responsible for creating a child-friendly version of a research paper. Researchers are extremely busy, after all, and may not necessarily have the means to create a stripped back version of their research that is appealing to kids.
While researching for this blog post, I came across Frontiers for Young Minds (FYM), which is a great example of an existing resource that seeks to make scientific research accessible to children. FYM is ‘an open-access scientific journal written by scientists and reviewed by a board of kids and teens’. Articles are created with the involvement of an editorial board, the researchers in question and a ‘young mind’. And the selling point for researchers is that they gain the opportunity to extend the reach of their work even further, as well as receiving free illustrations of their research that are created as part of the article development process.
Benefits of reaching kids
The benefits of making research accessible to children are multitudinous – for researchers and society alike. Young people are the next generation of scientists, thought leaders and change enactors, and their curious minds can be stimulated and inspired by science, as well as helping to ensure they have an informed voice for involvement in important discussions.
For many years, there has been talk of a lack of students pursuing education and careers in STEM. Fortunately, it seems as though the tide is turning. In the UK, for example, the Department of Education recently reported that ‘More young people are taking STEM subjects than ever before’. ‘In the past, STEM subjects have been harder for children and young people to access,’ the article acknowledges, and attributes the improvement in the situation to various ‘measures undertaken by the Department for Education to support STEM teaching’.
This is good news, as the impact of a shortage of STEM researchers would be significant, detrimentally affecting society, economy and security. This is why it is important to continue to ensure that children are inspired to embark upon science education and career paths. One way to do so is by making the body of diverse and impactful research studies in existence accessible to them.
Inspiring people of all ages
This involves ensuring there is a visual element to the work, as well as drawing children in with fun and exciting explanations. Highlighting the real-world impact of research is always important and, arguably, this is even more important for children who undoubtedly will want to gain an appreciation of how a research study may affect or benefit them in their day-to-day lives.
In this Guardian article, Dr Anne Osterrieder, who is a postdoctoral research assistant in plant cell biology and an outreach coordinator for the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at Oxford Brookes University, discusses different engagement channels that can be used to broaden the reach of scientific research. She believes that people working in higher education have a key role to play. Outside of school talks and workshops, Osterrieder mentions school magazines, blog posts and social media as potential channels for SciComm for young people. ‘What makes blogs so attractive is their potential to include visual and dynamic content,’ she states. ‘Blogs, Twitter, Google+ or YouTube are not the first thing to spring to mind when thinking about science communication. But if used properly, they can be much more than a distraction,’ she explains.
An obvious challenge presents itself in the concept of making child-friendly versions of research papers. Naturally, much like science itself, this will involve collaboration with different stakeholders, including with a publication or channel, a researcher and, ideally, with children too – as the intended audience should have input into the material.
Research is often inherently complex, but with the use of images and by taking key concepts and stripping these back to basics, a simplified version can be formed. This, of course, requires time and effort but could prove beneficial for researchers in reaching an even broader and more diverse audience, as well as providing them with the knowledge that they are contributing to the important bigger picture of helping nurture the next generation of researchers. It seems there is a gap in the market for more ventures similar to FYM that can provide the resources and know-how to make research accessible to children.
In the future, as growing emphasis is placed on SciComm and the dissemination of research to as wide an audience as possible, this can and should extend to reaching children. If this can become a standard element of the research dissemination process, a thirst for scientific knowledge and discovery can be initiated in young minds, which will likely lead to more young people pursuing scientific studies and later entering into scientific career paths, with untold benefits for society.
Ultimately, there is a relentless need for researchers in all fields working towards important breakthroughs that will have myriad impacts and benefits for society. This begins with children and the earlier it starts the better. Science can, and should, inspire people of all ages.
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