The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

A challenge: can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?

(No, I’m not talking about my manuscript this week. I am busy drinking beer and forgetting about it for a few days. So there.)

Meanwhile, I’m working on an application. If this thing pans out I’ll be doing science outreach with kids a few times a year. In addition to the usual “describe your research” and “describe your publications”-type sections one typically finds in applications,  it also included this: “Describe your research as you would to a group of 8- to 12-year-olds during an outreach program in half a page or less“.

I have to be honest: this was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever been asked to do for any application.  Ever.

It meant providing enough background information, context, and content to be meaningful and descriptive, while avoiding the usual trappings of unintelligible jargon we scientists so adore.  Concise and jargon-free writing should be old hat for anyone who’s ever applied for any kind of science funding… but c’mon, admit it: you STILL use all kinds of acronyms, technical terminology (and, yes, jargon) when you apply for those things, DON’T you?  You also type single space, tweak your margins, write ridiculously long paragraphs (or don’t break the text into paragraphs at all, choosing instead to use bold and italic and underlined font to designate the start of new sections), and use the smallest font you can get away with. Amirite?

Don’t lie. You know you do.

Bottom line: you just can’t get away with that stuff when you’re talking to kids. Their eyes will glaze over and you’ll lose them in five seconds flat. (Note: this will also happen at conferences, committee meetings and grad seminars. With grownups.)

Anyways, I made multiple versions of this little half-pager, and sought the opinions of several primary school  teachers to see if it was clear, kid-friendly, and interesting. I think I have something useable, but I’m going to let it rattle around in my brain for a while (i.e., drink beer and forget about it) before making a commitment and submitting a final version.

So, here’s my challenge to you: describe your research in  250 words or less with an audience of ten-year-olds in mind.

It think this is actually a pretty useful exercise, as it has broader implications for anyone doing any kind of science outreach or public speaking. Whether you’re taking to kids or to non-specialist adults, jargon and lengthy, complex explanations simply won’t cut it. Instead, clear, plain language are required, and years of work have to be drilled down to a few critical points.  Adding youthful attention spans to the mix means you also need to find a way to grab the audience’s attention and help them make relevant links to their own experiences. (Actually, you should try to do this for grownup audiences too. Most ten-year-olds probably have a longer attention span than I do.)

Can you manage it? Feel free to submit your attempt if you want. Even if you don’t, I do encourage you to give this a shot – you might be surprised at how difficult it can be!


An unrelated aside: I am apologizing in advance for being lame and not posting as regularly as usual for the next few weeks. I will do my best to stay on schedule  (especially since I’m finally getting some field photo ops!), but I’m working on a very Exciting New Online Initiative, and it’s taking up a very large chunk of my “internet” time.  This ENOI will be live and fully operational by the end of May at the absolute latest – hopefully sooner. When my partner in crime and I are finished working out the kinks, you’ll be hearing all about it (probably won’t hear the end of it, actually) – it will likely be of interest to many of you!


Alright, alright. Since so many of you are playing along (YAY!) I should probably share mine. This is a slightly abbreviated version of my draft text (I get a whole half page, which is a little more than 250 words) – but now that I’ve written this shorter version, I think I actually like it better…

If I told you that I have an amazing science job working way up north in the Arctic, I bet you’d think I was studying huge polar bears. Actually, I’m there to study smaller animals that can survive the terrible cold and love the warmer summers: insects! In June, I pack my equipment and fly to different places in the Arctic. At the end of an exciting summer of exploring and trapping insects, I bring my bugs back south to my lab, and use books, microscopes and other tools to learn about them.

You might wonder why I study tiny bugs instead of big bears. For one thing, there are millions of insects, and they come in many wonderful colours, shapes, and sizes. Insects also have many jobs: they help plants grow, they are food for many birds and mammals, and some act as the Earth’s clean-up crew, eating things like dead leaves and even poop! Insects are very important.

You also might wonder why I go all the way to the chilly Arctic to trap insects, when there are so many right here in our own backyards. Well, insects can live almost anywhere, including important places that are very wet (like rivers), very hot (like deserts) or very cold (like in the Arctic). Did you know that insects can tell us if these places are healthy and happy? It’s true! When the environment changes too much, sometimes the insects move away or stop doing their jobs: this is a sign that the environment is not healthy, and that we need to watch it very closely. Some people are worried that the Arctic is not healthy because the planet is warming up. By learning about the insects there – who they are and what jobs they do – I will help figure out if this special part of Canada is healthy, and I will be better able to guess how the Arctic might look in the future.


33 responses to “A challenge: can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?

  1. Steve Willson April 16, 2012 at 10:38 PM

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. Albert Einstein said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

  2. jessofthebugs April 16, 2012 at 10:49 PM

    Ha! Excellent! I have a 10-year-old you can borrow if you need to test it out. I was just remembering explaining evolution to her when she was about four and what a challenge that was.
    I work with high school kids and it is necessary to use simple language without talking to them like they’re idiots.

    • TGIQ April 16, 2012 at 10:53 PM

      That’s the thing that trips a lot of people up – the “not treating them like idiots” part. There can be a fine line between age-appropriate language/concepts and dumbing something down. Few things make me more irate (in outreach contexts, anyways) than hearing an adult lapse into goo-goo baby talk/voice with perfectly intelligent school-age kids. It’s insulting and totally not helpful…

  3. snakeyphotos April 17, 2012 at 1:13 AM

    I’m interested in the way that crocodiles and alligators grow up.

    If you look at these animals, one of the first things that you notice is that some of them have short, broad faces, while others have long, narrow heads. Other scientists have found that these different shapes are related to what the animals are eating — short, broad skulls are good at crushing large prey items, while long, narrow snouts are good at snapping up fish. But it’s really important to remember that when crocodiles hatch, they can’t eat the big fish and mammals that adult crocodiles do. Instead, when they hatch, the bones of their skull must be adapted to eat small animals, like insects and tadpoles; as they grow up, the shape of their skull needs to change, since their diet is switching to larger and larger prey.

    I want to know what parts of the skull are changing, and if these changes are the same in all crocodiles and alligators, or whether different kinds of crocodiles change their skull in different ways as they grow. If they are different, I want to know whether things that are closely related to each other are more likely to change in similar ways, or whether things with more similar adult diets are more likely to share patterns of change in the skull as they grow.

    Hm. It’ a start. I think I need an actual ten-year old to point out the parts where it’s failing, though.

    • TGIQ April 17, 2012 at 6:40 AM

      This is the first time I’VE understood what it is you study. It is pretty awesome actually.
      I think this is pretty kid-friendly – well done!. A live classroom presentation, complete with skulls, would be awesome. Props would definitely help illustrate things…but I think you did pretty great for a written-only assignment. 🙂

  4. Don Parsons April 17, 2012 at 8:56 AM

    I conduct hundreds of eco tours a year at a national wildlife refuge in Florida, and by far, ten year olds are my best audience. They are at their most curious and engaging time of their lives. Kids will fall asleep if you dump a lot of stats on them, so let them find a tree crab, or a gopher tortoise and you’ve got them hooked. Once you have their attention the rest is easy, they are so full of questions they almost conduct the tours by asking all the questions that the adults are too timid too ask. Encourage curiosity about everything.

    • TGIQ April 17, 2012 at 2:09 PM

      I actually think that’s one of the reasons I found this assignment so tricky. Any time I’ve ever had to do a “presentation” with young people, the kids usually direct it effectively all by themselves, by asking great questions. Simply WRITING what I’d say to them unprompted/without their input is much harder than just talking with them. It feels very artificial.

  5. Adrian D. Thysse April 17, 2012 at 1:16 PM

    Perhaps while you’re drinking beer (what kind?) you could answer a few questions for me…
    Prepare for an email!

  6. jebyrnes (@jebyrnes) April 17, 2012 at 8:25 PM

    My wife teaches a workshop for scientists called “How to hold an audience at a conference or a cocktail party” where one of the exercises is to figure out how to explain what you do to a kindergartener. And then use that for adults. My favorite one ever was from a Lithuanian theoretical physicist who came up to her afterwards and timidly asked to tell her his sentence. It was “I study the coldest place in the universe.”

    I was instantly captivated.

    For me, I often use “I study what happens when Nature falls apart.” That seems to often do the trick.

    • TGIQ April 18, 2012 at 6:24 AM

      I love this! I already want to know more about BOTH of those projects (yours, and the physicist’s!) That sounds like a very useful workshop…I’ve never seen anything like that offered before (not around where I work, anyway)…

  7. Morgan Jackson April 17, 2012 at 9:53 PM

    So last night I was going to work on a manuscript of my own, and lo and behold you lay down this challenge, and I end up working on my own research explanation until the wee hours of the morning! Thanks for that! 🙂

    Also, hurray for NEOIs!

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  9. james April 18, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    Why do animals team up?

    We humans (well… most of us) are very good at sharing with others. But most animals are very selfish (think what happens when you give a dog a bone). That’s what animals have to do to stay alive and bring up their babies in the wild. In fact, animals are usually so selfish that when we find species that share things with others, scientists get excited and want to study them.

    One example is meerkats in South Africa. Most meerkats never have babies! Instead, they help their mother produce lots of brothers and sisters. Meerkats can’t have babies in the desert on their own: they have to team up. They help make life easier for mum, so she can concentrate on making siblings – which is nearly as good as having your own babies because you’re still helping your family grow.

    Instead of meerkats, I study “thrips” – the tiniest insects possible, so small you can hardly see them. Despite being tiny, they are fascinating: sometimes they team up into micro-teams to build nests! Nobody knows why – that’s what I am finding out.

    It turns out they each make fewer babies when they team up. This is weird, and makes me want to ask more questions. They’re too tiny to see if one is having all the babies, like meerkats – for that I will have to do DNA tests. Teaming up may help them survive. Or they might just team up when they get crowded. No-one knows, which is what is so exciting.

    That’s my effort – hope it’s useful!

    • TGIQ April 18, 2012 at 11:58 AM

      So awesome!
      I’m starting to think that scientists should be obligated to provide summaries like this ALL THE TIME FOR EVERYTHING. How much more information would be effectively conveyed to more people? Not just kids, but the general public, or to other scientists outside your field? SO MUCH MORE. I am completely loving this exercise.
      Thanks for contributing, James!

  10. TGIQ April 18, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    ok, you guys are awesome. Since so many are playing along, I’ve updated the original post with my own version. 🙂

  11. Ted C. MacRae April 19, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    Well, I love a good challenge! Actually, I’ve done tons of classroom presentations, so it will be interesting to see if I can write as clearly as I present. The only question is which “entomologist” do I wrtie about – professional or avocational? (I do classroom presentations on both!)

  12. George Sims April 19, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    I DO get called upon several times a year to speak to groups of sixth-graders, and it is a MAJOR hoot!! The venues are usually outdoors, and near streams, and we usually have to tell them about “aquatic macroinvertebrates”, as indicators of stream quality.

    We need at LEAST thirty minutes per group, but often have to get by with less. I prefer to spend half the time going over the types of bugs they’re liable to find in their stream, and explain how some are tolerant of pollution, some semi-tolerant, and others very sensitive (emphasizing the EPT bugs–mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies), then turning them loose to get wet and turn over rocks.

    My favorite part of the presentation is always explaining the difference between dragonflies and damselflies–both adults and naiads. I love to point out the caudal lamellae on the damselfly nymphs, explaining that they are the gills used to breathe. THEN, I show a dragonfly nymph. “Where are HIS gills”, I ask. I get several guesses, then explain that the gills are inside the abdomen, and that the bug must “suck water through his ‘behind'” in order to breathe.”

    Therefore, “dragonfly larva BREATHE THROUGH THEIR BUTTS!” I then suggest that the kids go home and practice this in the bathtub. My co-presenter, a Yale-educated bachelor, as well as the kid’s teachers, are usually aghast, although I (having raised SEVEN kids) know that this is JUST the sort of thing the kids will remember forever.

    • Rebecca April 19, 2012 at 8:19 PM

      This reminds me of talking to kids about knobbed whelks on the beach in Georgia. “When they’re born, they’re all boys… and then when they get bigger, they ALL TURN INTO GIRLS.” Cue astonishment and horror.

      I’m a professional environmental educator and honestly, 8-12 is my absolutely favorite age group to work with. Kids that age are definitely capable of understanding scientific concepts if they’re explained well. By using examples I’ve been able to get across the basics of natural selection, speciation, etc.

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  15. James C. Trager April 23, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    Howdy TGIQ — Here’s my attempt, actually two attempts, like Ted’s.

    The naturalist
    I work at a nature reserve in Missouri, which protects the habitats of plants and animals that grow wild in our region. The reserve covers 4 square miles, which seems big, but actually is tiny, just a dot on a map, compared to the surrounding unprotected lands. The reserve contains woods, prairies, rocky meadows called glades, a river, ponds and wetlands. Each of these habitats has its own special life: for example, tall reeds and soft, juicy plants that like to have their feet wet – er – roots growing in water, in wetlands, but small, tough plants in the dry glades, which would drown in soggy wetland soil. Animals vary by habitats, too — Squirrels, racoons, songbirds, and numerous kinds of caterpillars live in forests, but rabbits, coyotes, sparrows and grasshoppers are more typical in the prairie. It’s my job to know the names and habits of these creatures, and to share this knowledge with other people. Another really important part of my job is to take care of these habitats. Sometimes this means rebuilding them after they were destroyed by human activities, or because they became overgrown by plants from other parts of the world that we call “invasives”, another word for alien invaders! Controlling invasives is definitely the hardest and least fun part of my job, but it is necessary to allow the local wild plants to grow and feed the wildlife, birds and insects. Creating new natural habitats, and restoring “sick” ones are among the most satisfying parts of my job.

    The ant man
    I have another kind of work that I don’t get paid for, but still love to do. I study ants. My interest in ants began when I was 5 years old, and I never grew out of it. Even then, I would carefully watch ants and learned about the habits of the different kinds that I could recognize. In college, I studied biology, so I could do research on ants. Then, I went to more college (graduate school), to continue studying ants. And finally, after I became a doctor of entomology (the science of insects), with a specialty in myrmecology (the science of ants), I got a job researching fire ants and others. This job took me to countries in South America, where fire ants came from. I learned Spanish and Portuguese, so I would be able to talk to people when traveling there – yes, about ants, but also about other interesting things, even sharing stories about our everyday lives and families. Now, I work in a job that is more about plants than ants, but I still study ants when I have time, and I write scientific papers about ant classification, giving names and describing characteristics of new ant species, never before recognized. Though there are 14,000 named kinds of ants, studies like mine continue to reveal many new species each year. It hard even to estimate how many species of ants exist in the world, but it’s safe to say, there are 1000’s yet to be discovered and named, including a few right here in Missouri!

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  20. Nithin January 4, 2014 at 10:50 PM

    I have a kid who is eight years old and read this article including comments and a few others by TGIQ and wants to read more. She didn’t misunderstand a single word ! she also says this website is very interesting …

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