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How to Talk to Kids About Science

Experimental Error
CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

As a performer and public speaker, I haven’t had the greatest history with audiences of kids. I once accepted an ill-conceived gig doing comedy at an after-prom party at 1 a.m., competing with caricaturists and temporary tattoo artists for the attention of the few non-drunk seniors who showed up. Another time, I offended dozens of high-schoolers at a Model UN conference with mild swearing. (No one cautioned me that some kids came from Mormon high schools. I said, “But I didn’t say anything worse than these kids could watch on CBS.” The administrator said, “These kids don’t watch CBS.”) And a group of third-graders once ran screaming from a performance when (not my fault) one of them saw a bug. The teachers barely managed to resettle the kids, and I resumed my talk—only to watch the auditorium clear out again to cries of “Someone farted!”

They say you should know your audience. But anyone who can read the Twilight series with an uncritical eye is probably someone I don’t know.

In fact, speaking to kids forces you to boil down your science to its most fundamental, easiest-to-communicate parts.

That is why I get nervous when I’m scheduled to speak to kids about science. I start feeling like a kid again myself, as if I were delivering my sixth-grade oral report on Luther Burbank, wondering which of them is going to ridicule my enthusiasm for the “Wizard of Horticulture.” (“Hey, nerd, your mom backcrossed fruiting cacti!”)

I felt more than a little scared last month when I was scheduled to speak at a science expo for middle and high school kids. The talk directly competed with a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Worse, when I arrived, I learned the lecture would take place in a gym. A four-storey gym. With a curtain divider separating us from some kind of loud basketball clinic. And 400 students. And a bevy of apologies because the sound system wasn’t working. “But you can shout, right?” my host suggested. In this cavernous room the size of a city block? For 45 minutes?

Hal Mayforth

Sure enough, 20 minutes in, my voice cracked, and it never quite un-cracked. For the rest of the talk, I sounded like the adolescents I was addressing.

As a scientist, you face many difficult audiences: Reviewers with a vested interest in your downfall. Reporters who take detailed notes about everything you say, then write something unrelated and nonsensical. Undergrads snapchatting during department seminars, for course credit of dubious merit. But at some point during your career, you may face the most challenging audience of all: children.

Maybe your workplace does public outreach. Maybe it’s Bring-My-Parent-to-School-to-Embarrass-Me Day. Maybe it’s part of your court-ordered community service. (I told you digital music piracy was a crime.)

Whatever your reason for being there, you’ll find yourself refocusing your science for a younger audience, searching desperately for a way to describe advanced quantum field theory without using big words or equations, and trying to be relatable by dropping slang terms like lulz. Whenever you find yourself in such a situation, be sure to heed these important tips:

  • Introduce yourself. Tell the children your name, your field of study, and a list of superlatives they must use when addressing you, such as “supreme” and “all-powerful.”
  • Before speaking to kids, remember that each child has his or her own “learning style”; some are visual learners, and some are tactile learners, but most are nonlearners. That’s OK, because you’re kind of a nonteacher.
  • Tell an anecdote that ends with a relatable joke, such as, “And then the lab technician said to the postdoctoral fellow, ‘Principal investigator? More like Principal instigator!’” Laugh hard, and be sure to pause at least 5 minutes until their children’s delight subsides.
  • You may notice the kids are all texting while you’re trying to speak. Don’t be thrown—with this generation, you’re just supposed to let that happen.
  • Remember, if you leave without a car full of unpaid interns to work in your lab, you’ve missed an opportunity.
  • You want to demonstrate that scientists are real people, so complain about your cable company, and engage in a rambling degradation of your bitchy ex.
  • Kids love to watch things explode—so repeatedly refuse to allow them to take the bathroom pass.
  • Today’s children have watched more Internet video clips than they’ve watched real people, so make them feel comfortable by stopping intermittently to buffer. Keep your best content behind a pay wall.
  • Turn out the classroom lights, and spookily shine a flashlight on your face. Tell the kids that a scaaaaary competitor reviewed your last grant application, and he could be hiding aaaaaanywheeeeere.
  • Ask the students in advance to bring in a shoebox, an old egg carton, a cardboard cylinder from a paper towel roll, and $500 in small, unmarked bills.
  • The kids may not know to call you “Doctor.” That’s okay. After you subject the first few of their classmates to your screaming wrath, they’ll learn.
  • During the course of your talk, try to turn the students against their parents. This is how you win their trust.
  • Wear a lab coat and safety goggles. Introduce your “assistant,” a chimp wearing an identical lab coat and safety goggles. You have to do this.
  • Bring in model rockets, a scale model of a volcano, and a 9-foot Tesla coil. Never use them. This will teach the students that science is often disappointing.
  • New Common Core Standards require that you conclude your presentation with an extensive multiple-choice exam based on material you did not cover.
  • You want to demonstrate that scientists never give up—so when the teacher asks everyone to clap and thank you for coming in today, keep speaking for six or seven more hours.

Talking to kids about science is hard. (Talking to kids about anything is hard. That’s probably why earlier generations just sent kids out to the sorghum fields until they reached childbearing age.) But if you can get past the innate distractibility of an audience of school kids, the principles of explaining science to kids are the same as those for explaining science to anyone: Clarity. An engaging way of speaking. Unconcealed enthusiasm for the work you’re presenting. The often-correct assumption that you’re only 5 seconds away from losing their attention.

In fact, speaking to kids forces you to boil down your science to its most fundamental, easiest-to-communicate parts. You end up removing all of the jargon, the unconvincing justifications, and the attempts to sound important. You also bring candy, which is always a plus.

So the next time you need to present your science to any audience—whether in a journal club, at a conference, or at the next lab meeting—stop for a moment and pretend you’re giving the same talk to a room full of children. If you can speak to them, you can speak to anyone.

But the most important thing of all, something you should never forget when giving a presentation, is to always—wait, someone farted!