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CISBAN Outreach

Scientist Meets Small Children, and doesn’t stop talking (and listening) all day!

[Update: You can get the slides for this presentation now. See my related post.]

This past Monday, one day before fantastic things happened in the voting booths of America (I had already submitted my absentee ballot), I spent a day at a local primary school. Names and locations for the school will not be mentioned, as I am unsure about rules regarding child protection, but the day was great, and I’ll tell you all about that. I had contacted the Teacher Scientist Network (information about volunteering is at the end of the post), which pairs teachers with scientists, about a year or so ago. As far as I know, prior to me, most of the scientists who had volunteered had been wet-lab-based scientists, and the partnerships were generally geared around that sort of work. I am a bioinformatician/computational biologist, which means I spend all my work time in front of a computer. Figuring out what to do with me in the TSN, and who to pair me with, took some effort. However, with the wonderful help of people like Deborah Herridge, and now Claire Willis, from the TSN, I was eventually paired with a teacher. She has a biology background, and now teacher 10-11 year olds. So, she is very aware of what sort of science she wants the kids to learn, and also understands how important it is for kids to interact with a “real” scientist. And what she organized for my visit was just great. Words like funny, wonderful, crazy, surprising, cute, interesting, intelligent, curious, shy, proud, and many others come to my mind when I think of those kids, and I’ll try to explain why.

My teacher partner has organized all this week as the school’s Science Week. And, for the first day, I was to visit and give them all a talk or two, and answer questions, about 1) what it is like being a scientist, and 2) what genes are and how they are used in research and medicine. In the case of the older kids, I also was able to talk a little about ethics, which was really good.

I saw 9 separate classes, speaking at each one, and also gave a short talk at the two assemblies (one for the juniors, and one for the infants). The ages of the children ranged from 5 to 11. In my short talk I had prepared some slides about how I had become a scientist, and the longer talk centered around the theme that me and my teacher partner had decided on: genes, and how they are used in scientific research. Yes, this meant talking about “GM”, but there are so many aspects of it that the media never really touch on, that the talk was wonderfully diverse. I spoke on historical domestication of animals, making medicine for humans, encouraging hardier crops, the similarities and differences between lab-based genetic manipulation and “traditional” selective breeding, the obligatory glowing fish and glowing mice, and the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry for this year, one of whom released a picture of a petri dish of fluorescing bacteria “drawn” with the picture of a sunset.

By the end of the day, my throat was sore from talking. People who know me would not be surprised to hear I talked a lot – that’s a standing joke. However, the kids talked (in a good way!) almost as much as I did. They always wanted to tell me about their experiences, and how they related to the slides, and were full of interesting questions. It was fabulous.

Top Questions Asked, in order of remembered frequency

1. Why do scientists wear white coats?

2. Is that seahorse real? (From a picture from the GloFish website)

3. Can scientists mix more than one gene together?

4. How many colors can you make? (with respect to fluorescent proteins)

5. What happens when you mix colors? (another fluorescent protein question)

6. Do you like America? / Do you like America more than the UK?

7. Does that one have eyes? (When looking at this picture of e.coli.)

8. They look like hot dogs! (Ok, so not a question, but hilariously accurate – of the e.coli, again.)

9. Why does one of my eyes have a bit of brown in it? (This was a child with blue eyes, except for a wedge of brown in one eye.)

10. Is the science in CSI (the TV program) like real science?

11. Are some scientists going to destroy the world with black holes? (A little off-topic, but I didn’t mind at all!)

As you can see, not all of them were strictly on-topic, but they just kept asking question after question. They also did the classic kid trick of raising their hand as if to ask a question, when their real purpose was telling you all about their vacation/pet dog/pet hamster/pet cat/Uncle who used to be a scientist but now works at Asda (yes, really!). But I didn’t mind those at all. I kept on running over time in each classroom, as they had so many things to ask me. It didn’t matter what age – pitch the talk in the right way, and they really seemed to enjoy it!

Some top tips if I were to do it again (which I really would like to do – the teacher I’m paired with and I have some ideas for next time) include:

1. My method of using no text on the vast majority of the slides really worked. It was especially useful as it meant I could stop anywhere in my slides if I was running out of time, and the littlest ones were not distracted by trying to read the words rather than listening to me.

2. Pictures of fluffy, pretty, cute, or “gross” animals were very, very popular. The number of “Awwwws” I got when showing pictures of cats was astounding. Equally, all the older ones wanted to see my pictures of the newborn mice (pretty gross with no hair!), and all ages enjoyed trying to figure out what the photo of e.coli was.

3. As soon as you ask a question, they all raise their hands to answer it. Not sure when this stops, but I know that by the time I was in high school the teachers had a hard time prying any answers out of the majority of us! 😉 However, on Monday I was at a school where the eldest was 11, and they all wanted to contribute. So, ask them questions. I found there were two types: the question where I wanted to get an answer (such as “What traits make a good horse?” or “What do you think makes these two cats different?”) and the type where I just wanted them to feel included in the talk, and just wanted a show of hands (such as “How many of you have a cat?” or “Who has heard of diabetes?”).

4. Introduce some ethics, and show how scientists think very carefully before doing research. We talked about genes a lot, and how putting new genes in bugs like e.coli can help us, e.g. the human insulin gene into e.coli to help with diabetes. I told all the older kids that it wasn’t the tool that is a problem: a tool is neither good nor evil. It’s how that tool is used, and people need to make a fresh decision, and think about the benefits and downsides each time that tool is used. I said genetic modification is like a knife: it is neither good nor bad, and that scientists try very hard to make sure that it is used for the right reasons, and in a safe way.

5. Visually-arresting analogies. Even though DNA is a double-helix and not a spiral staircase, I found it a very useful analogy, especially for the younger ones.

6. My partnered teacher had prepared some slides to show the kids prior to my arrival. They dealt with Mr. Green Genes, the GFP-glowing cat. Some of the other teachers also talked to their kids about inheriting some of your traits from your mom, and some from your dad, and used the labradoodle as a visual aid. This prepped them for my talk, which I think was really helpful.

7. Make your talk inclusive. It keeps their interest, I think. When I showed pictures of cats, I included one picture of my own cat, and told them a little about her. I often asked them questions about if they had pets, or scientists in the family, or liked the look of a picture, or knew what something was.

These are probably things that most people are well aware of, however, I thought I’d just share my experiences!

Things That Surprised Me

1. How many of them knew the word “bacteria” before I could even say it. It was, strangely enough, the top answer to my “What do you think this is?” question when I showed them the picture of e.coli.

2. How many of the kids, without prompting, came up to me after my talks and said that they really enjoyed it.

3. How many came up to me after my talks to ask more questions, or tell me about a scientist in the family.

4. How much enjoyment I got out of giving my talks, and from listening to what the kids had to say.

5. One of the kids made an immediate connection between adding “glowing genes” (GFP etc) to fish, and Jurassic Park. Ok, so it isn’t an exact analogy, but that was really great to hear. It also brought forth a discussion, led by the kids, about saving endangered animals.

And, in one direct appeal to my vanity, a little 5 or 6 year old girl told me as I was leaving her class that she thought I was pretty! Wow, what a nice way to finish a talk, and it definitely helped the ego 😉 I thanked her, and the teacher heard her and told her that her house could have a point. Then I realized that their school, just like Hogwart’s, had houses that got points! Too cool 🙂 And finally, a very great compliment from the teacher I’m paired with: “the kids are so much more enthusiastic about science and a lot of them have asked when you are comming back! Your work was perfectly pitched to the children’s needs and was explained in a way that was so easy to understand.” Thanks!

I highly recommend the Teacher Scientist Network. If you are interested in registering with the Teacher Scientist Network in my area (operated by Science Learning Centre North East), please visit and register at http://www.slcne.org.uk/tsn as a scientist. Claire Willis will then receive your application and arrange a mutually convenient time to meet up. If you’re interested, but aren’t sure where to go for your area, then have a look at that page – you can send questions to Claire from there. that website also has more information about the TSN. They don’t ask for very much time from scientists at all, from a day or two per year, to anything that the teacher and scientist agree to. In my case, the head of my Centre told all of us employees that if we wanted to volunteer for the TSN, we could do, and do it on work time. He is most generous, and definitely sees the benefit of science outreach to schools.

Thanks to the TSN, my bosses, my partnered teacher, and most especially all those kids! 🙂

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By Allyson Lister

Find me at https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7702-4495 and https://www.eng.ox.ac.uk/people/allyson-lister/

2 replies on “Scientist Meets Small Children, and doesn’t stop talking (and listening) all day!”

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