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How to communicate complex science to young kids


Little boy flying on a rocket

Do you remember your first fascinations with science as a kid? Perhaps it was when you saw the twinkling stars in the night sky for the very first time. Or when you witnessed the incredible variety of animals at the zoo!


Me? Well, my origin story likely STEM’d (haha) from multiple points of inspiration. The one defining experience I can recall very clearly was my first-ever chemistry experiment, when my parents gave me a toy rocket powered by the sheer force of conventional pantry ingredients.


Vinegar and baking soda: the classic combo. 👇


Rocket powered by vinegar and baking soda
This was the exact kit I was given as a 7-year old, which is still available on shelves about two decades later!

I was SO ready to see the rocket in action. After filling it up in the backyard, my instinct suggested that I take one step back, followed by a giant leap back for mankind as the rocket fizzled away. The bubbling filled me with anticipation. Excitement. Amazement! All of the feelings were felt as the little rocket then shot high up into the sky far beyond the reach of a 7-year old, on that one unforgettable afternoon in 2004. 🚀


And after the rocket made its less-than-elegant crash back down to Earth, I went off and read the little booklet that came with the kit; which explained how the chemical reaction worked. 📖 The rocket, explosions, booklets and all; they had conveyed the wonders of science to me.


Naturally, some might ask…


“So, this rocket must’ve inspired you to become a rocket scientist, right?”—Well… not quite. 🙅🏻

“Oh, so you became a chemist?”—Eh… not that either. 🤷🏻

Instead, I became a biologist! And soon after, a science communicator. Surprised? 🤓


Regardless of what scientific discipline we choose, or whether we pursue science or not, it’s vital to create a positive and memorable impression of science from a young age. Why? It’s because it is the young minds of today who will grow into the workforce of tomorrow, who will also be facing unique challenges beyond our lifetimes. To help nurture their science education, the art of meaningful communication is what we need to hone in order to make scientific concepts digestible and more appreciated, especially when we’re working with young attention spans.


So whether you’re a researcher with kids, a science teacher, or someone who’s simply interested in outreach—how do you communicate complex science to young kids? Let’s explore some strategies to launch the generation of the future.


Image that says Let's Prepare for Lift Off!


How to simplify scientific concepts using analogies and experiences


To simplify something is to make it easier to understand. Often this involves breaking down complex ideas into simpler, more digestible parts. But what’s most vital is that these “parts” need to be something that’s familiar to young audiences. ⚙️


Take, for instance, the concept of DNA. To simplify it, you could create an analogy based on what aspect of DNA you want communicate to kids, followed by a relatable experience in their lives. For example if you’re explaining DNA using the aspects of genes or genetic inheritance, you could try:


  • DNA is like a recipe book: it lists all the ingredients for making living things. Just like how you would need flour, eggs, and milk to bake a cake! 🎂

  • DNA is like a baton in a relay race: First, imagine a relay race on Sports Day at school, where each team is a family. DNA is the baton that’s been passed from your grandparents, to your parents, and then to you so that you can continue the epic race! 🏃🏻


Analogies for DNA that children can understand

It’s no secret that many complex scientific concepts, like DNA, are multifaceted with entire disciplines being dedicated to studying them. That is why it is effective to communicate specific features using clear analogies, and other effective strategies too. 👇



How to communicate scientific research using storytelling


Stories have captivated the human race for as long as language has existed, just as epic heroes and evil villains have formed the the perfect template for an engaging action plot.

But why does the classic ‘good versus evil’ work so well for storytelling? Well, kids are taught at school that stories are generally made up of three parts:


  • The opening (setting)

  • Any challenges (the evil)

  • And the resolution (the good)


We actually follow a very similar formula which you can read about in extensive detail here. It essentially has the same ingredients, just named differently. 😉


Did you know that scientific research topics have the perfect plotline for a good story? Here’s an example story which briefly explains a research project to develop ways to filter out large plastics from the ocean.


  • The opening: “Sea turtles are beautiful creatures aren’t they? During the day they swim happily in the sea, and at night—the mother turtles even lay their eggs on our beaches!”

  • Any challenges: “But the problem is, not all of them are swimming happily, or can even make it safely to the shore. Some are trapped in plastic six-pack rings, and others are covered in nets that have been thrown into the ocean. Those are the true villains of the sea!”

  • And the resolution: “We need a hero to save the day. That’s why I’m working on creating a robot hero: a special machine that can filter out larger plastics from the ocean and save the sea turtles.”


Giant machine superhero filters out plastics from the ocean

Setting it out in this way creates a clear problem and a solution—a clear villain and a hero—two narrative elements that remain timeless in kids stories. So why not try and devise your own villain, and give you and your research the persona of an epic hero? 🦸🏻‍♂️


And of course, stories can be further enhanced to create a more immersive experience. 👇



How to communicate science using video and hands-on experiences


Seeing is believing. Learning is by doing. You’ve likely heard of these two exact phrases before, but how can we apply them for communicating science?


Video


Kids. Love. Watching. Things.

From short YouTube clips, all the way to epic Discovery Channel episodes—video as a format is undoubtedly a powerful audiovisual tool that can convey the wonders of science to kids.


Here at Animate Your Science, we’re all very passionate about the power of creating short animated science videos to explain science simply to any target audience, including for kids, as an educational resource. You’ll also be able to find a list of our favourite science animation YouTube channels here!


Perhaps you might even want to make your own science video about your research, which we teach in our new online course!


Hands-on experiences


As I’ve harped on about my toy rocket kit, we’re likely on the same page as to where I’m going with this. Hands-on experiments help kids to engage more with science. By simply allowing them to see science for real and get involved, we create an experimental learning environment: where kids learn from observation and action which engages all of the senses.

Here’s a short list of fun and easy experiments that kids can get involved in:


  • Designing paper airplanes: to learn about effective aerodynamics and experimental optimisation. There’s a lot of trial and error to be discovered with each plane design!

  • Planting seeds from fruit: to teach kids that seeds come from fruit, and can be used to create whole new plants!

  • Creating a home-made lava lamp: to teach kids about the concepts of density and immiscibility. All you need is a bottle, water, oil, and optionally—food colouring!


Science crafts at home - making paper plans, planting fruit seeds, and mixing oil with water

Even at-home crafts can have a scientific angle, which help to develop a child’s scientific interests and boost creativity. More on that latter point below! 👇



How to connect a child’s interests with science


Childhood is a time where kids can get interested in practically anything.


Dinosaurs? That’s a popular one. 🦖

Fairy tales and Disney movies? Absolutely. 🦄

Chicken nuggets? A most definite yes. 🐓


Have reciprocated conversations about their interests, and when the right topic strikes, you can steer it in a way that makes them curious to want to know more about a potential scientific fact.


For example:


  • I see you really like T-Rexes! But did you know that there’s was an even bigger dinosaur called the Gigantosaurus? —They’ll likely say NO WAY!

  • I loved that scene where they wished on a shooting star in the movie Wish. But guess what? Shooting stars aren’t actually stars, but are actually just meteors? —They’ll also likely say NO WAY!

  • Chicken nuggets are pretty yummy huh? Here’s an interesting tidbit for ya. Did you know that not all chicken nuggets are entirely made of chicken? —You might get an EWW NO WAY! in this case. 😅


Kid learns that shooting stars are meteors

The “NO WAY!” response is what we want to elicit here. Of course, we don’t necessarily advocate telling them about the truth of Santa Clause until the right time comes. So if they’re wondering how it’s possible for a reindeer-powered sleigh to fly, hold onto any aerodynamic truth bombs! 🎅🏻


Curiosity is the very core of scientific inquiry, and that’s why it’s important to encourage questions. 👇



How to encourage asking questions about science


Science is about asking questions and seeking answers to form an understanding. A question can be be prefaced with one of either “What/Why/Where/Who/When/How” but most likely you’ll get the “What/How/Why” varieties — with kids wanting to know how to do something. In order to encourage questions and create conversation, one strategy is to present a child with something beyond their understanding that just BEGS to be answered.


For example:


  • Activating a glow stick to demonstrate a chemiluminescent reaction: This encourages questions like “What is that?”, “How does it light up like that?”.

  • Creating a focussed sun ray using a magnifying glass on a dry leaf: This encourages questions like “How do you do that?” and “What happens if you put it over the leaf?”.

  • Rubbing a balloon on your hair to demonstrate static electricity: This encourages questions like “How do you do that?” and “Why does that happen?”


Kid applies a balloon to her hair, producing static electricity

Though sometimes, you’ll be hit with a curveball that you might not know the answer to. When you don't have all the answers, you can model curiosity and exploration by researching together using the right tools. 👇



How to use technology to spark scientific interests


I lived through the tail-end of dial up internet and slow browsing speeds—so there was still a use for books or at least digital encyclopaedias back then. But now, we’re living in a bizarre age where most kids of school age have access to fast internet and/or a smart device.

So how can we harness this readily available tool to raise bright and curious minds? Here’s a few ideas to get you rolling!


Encourage kids to get lost (on purpose) on Wikipedia


A habit I’ve formed since childhood is to read a random Wikipedia article from time-to-time. And more often than not, I tend to read ones with a scientific focus. But while I was raised to believe that Wikipedia was generally an unreliable resource, there are actually people who moderate and audit its content regularly, called Wikipedians in Residence. In fact, we interviewed one of them on what exactly this residency entails which you can check out here.


From just Wikipedia articles, I’m able to learn about the most random things. This often results in clicking link, after link, after link—a phenomenon known as entering a Wiki Rabbit Hole. It’s a fun activity for kids of all ages (for as long as they can read)!


For example, if start at the Wikipedia page for ‘Bananas’, I’d learn that:


  • Bananas are actually berries from a botanical definition. No way! Being curious about what is considered a berry, I click the next hyperlink to seek answers.

  • In Berries, I also learn that cucumbers fall under the same definition. Interesting! I click the next hyperlink to seek even more answers.

  • In Cucumbers, I learn that they grow on vines which often don’t even need soil!


I click on and on and on, until either my interest wanes or when I become some sort of botanical quiz master. 🌱


Wiki Rabbit Hole, Science Edition. Bananas, into Berries, into Cucumbers

From this simple exercise, kids will learn little factoids that spark their curiosity and encourage an inquisitive mind.


eLearning Apps


With iPads being a common children’s toy nowadays, it’s also become the perfect tool for interactive learning. There have been many apps developed with a focus on science education, such as:


  • NASA: The official NASA app gives kids a glimpse into worlds beyond our own, based on real data from the space agency.

  • Merlin Bird ID: Simply take a picture of a bird and identify it with the aid of this nifty app! Great for budding bird-watchers.

  • PictureThis: If you could identify birds, you could definitely identify plants. It also works by inputting a photo, and you’ll get loads of information—from scientific names, through to learning the best growth conditions for a plant.


In summary


That was a lot to run through! But with these strategies in mind, you’ll foster an environment where curiosity in science can start from a young age.


To recap: to communicate complex science to kids, you can:


  • Simplify scientific concepts using analogies

  • Tell engaging stories with a clear hero and villain

  • Use audiovisuals like videos, and hands-on experiences like experiments

  • Connect a child’s interests through a related scientific topic

  • Encourage children to ask questions and have reciprocated conversations

  • And harness the technologies that are so readily available for today’s generation!

Remember, every scientific expert was once a child who fell in love with the wonders of science. 💫


Communicate science through animation!


Science videos, like the ones filmed through the Discovery Channel, are a powerful tool for communicating the wonders of nature. But how do you communicate complex scientific concepts you simply can’t film, like molecules or supermassive black holes?


That’s where animation can allow us to go beyond what can be captured with film alone.


Animate Your Science is run by a dedicated team of PhD-trained science communicators and professional artists, whose mission is to communicate complex science by creating captivating animated explainer videos. Whether you’re a teacher, researcher, outreach coordinator, or simply a science lover; we’ll be able to create you an animation to suit any purpose!


Contact us today to learn more about how we can Animate Your Science.


Need a sample? Take a glimpse at the many incredible projects we’ve worked on recently!



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