As scientists, we are used to giving seminars, presentations, and speeches to different audiences. For some people, it is easy. For others like me, it is the stuff nightmares are made of. But no audience is more challenging than a group of children. If you don’t catch their attention quickly and retain it, you are doomed. I have seen colleagues who are brilliant tenured professors in their jobs, have epic fails when presenting to a classroom full of schoolchildren. I know, I’ve been one of the epic fails.
And the thing is, there is an increasing need for engaging children in doing science. To have a more diverse and dynamic scientific workforce, children need to be exposed to role models early and often. They need to see what it might be like for them to be a scientist, that there are scientists who look like them, and that science is, well, awesome!
Here are five quick tips to keep in mind whenever you have an eager and demanding audience of children for your presentation, whether your presentation is on national TV or at your child’s school.
One of the most cringe-worthy videos that I have ever seen online is the one of Senator Dianne Feinstein talking to a group of young climate activists. Agh! The video has everything: interrupting the children, the “I have 30 years of experience,” dismissive comments, and, gasp! Telling a girl of color to “take that back to whoever sent you here” Even the senator’s body language, with her arms crossed and literally talking down to the children is the very definition of condescending. It’s as hard to watch as a terrible car crash. Ugh!
The looks of disappointment, frustration, and sadness on the children’s faces is just heartbreaking. You don’t want to break children’s hearts, do you? If you can stomach watching this video to the end, remember it next time you are talking to children about science or any other topic. Let it be a cautionary tale of what not to do. Believe me, I know. I may have done something like this in the past, especially before I had children. Thankfully, it was not caught on tape, but now I know better. There is no excuse for treating children like this.
Instead of a condescending attitude, try to remind yourself of what you are there to do. You should not expect that the children will learn all that there is to know about your topic from that one presentation. Your purpose is to encourage their curiosity and to leave them inspired. Remember that. See the infamous video here: https://youtu.be/jEPo34LCss8
When you are the real you, it is palpable. If you love your career in science, this will naturally show through your presentation, whether you are funny or serious. One way to get yourself into it is to start your presentation by saying something about that moment. Offering a comment about the nice room where you are giving the presentation, or the weather, or anything that is happening in the now, will get you in touch with yourself at that moment and help you feel more present.
In my presentations, I just try to let my real personality show and be authentic. Even if that gets me off the script a little bit, it helps me to get into it and enjoy giving the presentation.
There is a whole field of study on communicating science to the general public. Sometimes, it is not so easy to do. Use any tools that may help you visualize and explain your concepts. Can you use analogies? Can you create an infographic? Can you make a diagram or use props to illustrate your ideas? Think creatively. The act of simplifying your content to its core will also help you in generating new ideas and seeing your science with a different perspective. It is worth also doing this when you are presenting to diverse audiences that are not in your field, and even for grant proposals.
We have studied how groups of lay audiences, such as study participants, can gain increased knowledge when complex information is presented in simple but impactful formats. Here is one of our studies in this area: https://www.drluzclaudio.com/uploads/2/6/2/6/26264188/claudio_et_al_communicating_environmental_health.pdf
And above all, do not reject invitations to speak at your local elementary schools as unimportant or a waste of your time. You never know if you will spark an idea in a young mind. This happened to me as a young person. The first time I met an actual working scientist, I was in 12th grade. It was the US energy crisis, and scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory came to my school in Puerto Rico to teach us how to save energy. I will never forget the scientist’s presentation in which he asked: Which razor saves more energy to the country, the electric razor, or the disposable blade? That was it! I was hooked on science.
This section will not be visible in live published website. Below are your current settings:
Current Number Of Columns are = 1
Expand Posts Area = 1
Gap/Space Between Posts = 8px
Blog Post Style = card
Use of custom card colors instead of default colors = 1
Blog Post Card Background Color = current color
Blog Post Card Shadow Color = current color
Blog Post Card Border Color = current color
Publish the website and visit your blog page to see the results
Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist, mother and consultant, originally from Puerto Rico. She is a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health. Luz recently published her first book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. Dr. Claudio has internship programs and resources for young scientists. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely her own and may not reflect her employer's views.