10 reasons to discuss science with 5 year olds

by Aditi Mishra

Recently, I participated in SkypeAScientist with seventy kindergarteners from an International School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

I’ll admit, it was daunting. But by the end of this blog you would understand why this was one of the most educating experiences from grad school yet.

When I had initially signed up for SkypeAScientist, I was thinking that I would be talking to college or at least high school students. But then I find this an email waiting in my inbox, Subject: Skype a scientist.

I’ll admit, it was daunting.

I was thinking what can I possibly tell kindergarteners about the brain (in the language of 5/6 year olds) except that they have one?

Do I bring in neurons, do I talk about predictions, and what is meta cognition really? I don’t know what got into me but I decided to do it – just for the heck of it. Swimming in my brain was the thought that if I can talk to kindergartners about insect brains, I could pretty much handle talking to anybody after that.

And so I said yes and like any other ordinary PhD student forgot everything about it – until the penultimate day.

40 hours to my talk – the same talk that 70 special tiny guests would be tuning in from Addis Ababa – I was staring at a blank screen for two hours. What do I really tell them? It’s not like you can google how to talk about brains to 5 year olds.

But as they say third hour is the charm.

By the third hour – I decided that I must anchor the talk in something that my audience knows way too well – that is being five. Long story short, I finally had a presentation.

So here is the list of the top 10 things this experience taught me –

  1. Kindergartners are probably the only audience that will howl with laughter at your jokes.

As a run of the mill academic, I had a stack of dry, neat slides with text only. Until someone wise rightly advised me to include pictures, “Think of the 70th kid in the back row who doesn’t want to be there”.

Disgruntled, this was the change incorporated into my opening pun.

The moment baby Rambo propped up on the screen. Kids went berserk with laughter. Honestly, it inconvenienced their teacher, but it did wonders for my confidence.

Did the kids pay attention after this? You, bet.

2. It’s 101 on how to use colors without being trashy.

It was clear from the beginning was that the presentation had to be colorful without inducing seizures in the audience. The lazy yet elegant trick of white text on black background just wouldn’t cut it. Making the slides colorful, yet colorblind friendly did require some mental gymnastics. But I improved upon a transferable skill by experimenting with a different style.

3. It taught me how to be brief and the importance of it.

Kids lose interest really fast, hence time and timing is key. Frankly this exercise taught me more about being brief than any of my rehearsed talks or elevator pitches.

4. It taught me how to tailor the content to one’s audience.

No doubt the content for my talk was very light, but getting there wasn’t easy. Some really hard choices had to be made. I had never worked harder on tailoring my content for my audience.

5. It broadened my own perspective about the subject.

Young children are still figuring out the world and haven’t been indoctrinated (yet) hence their answers are really refreshing, authentic and uncensored. When I asked the toddlers what they think the brain is for one kid remarked that we would be really bored and lonely without an inner voice. It got me thinking of all the time I spend day dreaming and realized that while I don’t know the exact evolutionary advantage of day dreaming, the brain definitely works hard to keep us occupied. Something I wasn’t considering before. #TodayIrealized

6. It really compels you to be lucid – without using big words like lucid.

You cannot speak like Shashi Tharoor in front of kids and that is where the real challenge begins. How eloquent are we really? Once stripped off our fancy convent education, GRE preps and the arsenal of well stocked vocabulary would we still make compelling arguments. Kids are the most unbiased jury out there. Big words don’t sway them. Big words confuse them though.

7. Teaches you not to underestimate your audience.

In my experience imagining that insects could have brains is not trivial. Even several grad school applicants get that wrong. Several adults don’t even know what insects are (spiders are arachnids). But my audience of five year olds knew both facts. I certainly lost some shock value and pizzazz from my presentation there.

8. Forces you to distill concepts into the simplest, most relatable building blocks.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. 
Albert Einstein

If you want test your depth in a subject matter, please talk to kids about your work – in a manner they would like to listen. Trust me their questions would be as rigorous if not more than your committee.

9. Re-taught the power of wonder and curiosity.

I love doing science! I love reading about science! I love talking about science! But this is not enough at times. Burnout at lab, depression and desperation is real. Seeing tiny faces gasp with wonder and seeing myself in them really helped. Try it. This might just be the antidote that you have been looking for.

10. Reaffirms your faith in humanity.

Interacting with kids excited to talk to a scientist made me momentarily forget many of my troubles. My select public of 70 was patiently waiting to talk to me. They were five-year-old but extremely disciplined so that they could get the most out of their time with me.

They did not ask me what was the impact factor or the cost benefit ratio of studies on insect behavior. They did not ask me why I decided to pursue science over medicine or management studies. They were just amazed to learn that some scientist had managed to understand that some bees count can count up to 8 and some can understand 0.

I guess every child is a scientist. The problem is how to remain that curious as we grow up. I don’t know the solution to that one. Happy sciencing everyone!

Thanks for reading this. If you are a scientist feeling inspired please check out https://www.skypeascientist.com/ now. Inspiration doesn’t last long, check it now! SkypeAscientist does not require you to have a presentation you can simply chat with the participants and answer their questions as well. And you can use platforms other than Skype too.

If you are person wondering how to get started please feel free to use this handy guide about brains and insect behavior for kindergartners.

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