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Talking Science to Kids

Talking Science to Kids – Dr. Uthra Dorairajan

Tell us in small chunks, with questions for us to ponder. Give us time and listen to answers we give you. We do not like long talks that put us to sleep”.

That is what children often tell me when I want to discuss science with them.

There is a perception that the largest numbers of school dropouts in India are because of math and science. Apparently, children find it tough to crunch on dry numbers and drier formulae. They want to munch on chocolates, naturally!

So, can science be made as crunchy and munchy as chocolates for children? Why not!

I mean, how many of us adults shy away from science? Not a small number at all. However, if you read “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson, a fantabulous book on science, and pure science, we adults would be roaring in laughter. Why? Because Bryson has taken a route of storytelling while dealing with anything in science, from gravitation to Charles and Boyles laws to Stephen Hawking’s astrophysics. He has made it appealing. And I will not be surprised if many an adult goes back to their kids’ science books to understand more after reading Bryson.bday-1

We recently celebrated World Science Day for Peace and Development on November 10th. This is an internationally celebrated day, declared by UNESCO, to highlight the importance of science in, and for, society, and that science, peace and development are interlinked. It also underlines the importance and relevance of science in our daily lives. We all know a fruitful engagement with children becomes vital to achieve transfer of science, another name for knowledge, for achieving progress and peace.
Children by nature are enthusiastic, curious, inquisitive, bubbling with energy and are natural learners, if anything excites them. Most of the times, they are brutally honest, unbiased and out-of-box thinkers. I guess these are the best ingredients to nurture inquiry-based learning, and science is all about that. Now the question before us adults is, how are we going to actively engage them with science, help them learn based on inquiry, make them sieve knowledge from information, teach them to look at opinions, discuss, debate and find solutions?

This becomes necessary if we want our youth to think critically and channelise their knowledge and skill-set into meaningful actions. When are we going to kick-start a Science communication movement, through which we can ignite learning and contributing to society can be achieved? How can we bring in our people cutting various barriers to groom young minds? Is this not the need of the hour?img-20160125-wa0007

Budding Science Ambassadors
A systematic planning and execution can help us transform these young people into science ambassadors. I have always felt, as children are good observers. With a little motivation and sustained guidance, many of them can be trained. Teachers, science communicators, authors, storytellers and science enthusiasts can come forward to build such a strong force for a strong tomorrow. The big question is, how?

As teachers, we come across classroom situations where peer group learning is much more effective. Especially during practical sessions or hands-on training workshops, this becomes more conspicuous. This could be due to the fact that children are more attuned to their team members’ needs, understand their language and speak the same.

In all my interactions with children, this has been my experience children want to hear in simple, tangible language. Often, when talking to them about inventions, it works better if we take them with us to that backdrop where that invention happened. When we travel back in time with them to, say, Louis Pasteur’s period or PMA Millardet’s time or to the days of Joseph Priestly, who discovered something as vital as Oxygen, along with children, they not only understand the science, but are also able to think of the environment favourable or adverse – that made the invention possible.for-tiny-tots

This in turn will make them look at any current problems, along with resources available, challenges they face and think of a solution. Through science storytelling – oral and written, we can make learning science interesting.

Oh! All these years I thought of the Bordeaux mixture as nothing more than a chemical and learnt the chemical formula by rote. Now I know that Bordeaux is in France where there were hundreds of vineyards. And that being the people’s main source of income, they desperately needed to solve pest infestation of grapes. PMA Millardet, a professor of botany, found that grape vines closest to the roads did not suffer the pest attacks, because grape farmers traditionally sprayed them with a mixture of copper sulphate and lime, to prevent passersby from eating them. He conducted several tests and found that that mixture could be used to control pest. Hearing this story, I feel that science cannot be segregated from geography, economics or other streams of knowledge.”

This is what a school kid told me when I interacted with him. And listening to him, his friend said, “Bingo! I will tell this to my little sister.” This is how science can take wings, very young and blithe wings.

Science Solutions
With thrust from various government agencies, state school departments and private agencies, the numbers of science expos and shows have been slowly increasing in the past decade. Even TV channels come up with science shows. Though this area needs a big thrust, there are some children like Varun Srivathsan of class IX, who celebrated his birthday by inviting his friends to enjoy a science show arranged at his house.

A small gathering that was able to perform hands-on was thrilled and it went beyond the science is fun element. Infinite Engineers, a team of engineers who are taking STEM activities to various parts of Tamil Nadu, designed the birthday show that included activities based on what those children have learnt in school. When asked what prompted Varun to have such a show, he replies, “I have been a part of science shows and I know how much kids enjoy every time I demonstrated. I have even dubbed science videos. I wanted my classmates to know what I was talking about. Now they too feel the excitement. We all like science activities, because we can fully engage and make something by ourselves. We may go wrong, that is fine, but we achieve a target. Actually only now I feel it is worth studying, else everything is just words.”

This happens to many kinaesthetic and tactile learners who have no scope in our current academic scenario. Science needs more people who can manipulate in their labs than arm chair critics. We need to spot such kinaesthetic learners, to create ripples of change for Make in India to become most effective.

Every activity, be it a simple class demo or project or taking part in an exhibition or story telling or a science skit or role playing like a scientist or participating in fame lab, gives children a sense of self pride. In the arena of science, this emerges mainly due to their logical thinking, tinkering abilities and problem solving capacity which is hence more important to be nurtured. They are able to share with their peers and someday we can march towards empowerment through science communication.

Many children take up problems related to their own environment that they get to understand and break their mind to attempt to solve day-to-day problems. With mentoring and constructive guidance, these children who can empathise can be transformed into potential innovators and scientists. “Our hands-on activities have entirely changed the classroom ambience which was previously more structured with less room for thinking and inquiry. Now students are building, experimenting and importantly asking questions out of curiosity to know more. Many students are also taking the projects to the next level by adding their own innovativeness to it”, notes Harish Srinivasan, co-founder, Infinite Engineers, an entrepreneur team.

Broadened Vision
Through continuously nourishing young minds with appropriate information and knowledge, I guess we will be able to widen their vision about various fields, which is definitely lacking now. This leads to mounting pressure on parents and in turn on children. Well conceived doses of information in various fields, opportunities, possibilities, we can help them explore themselves.

During one of my interactions, I heard this. “I actually wanted to do a very big project. But my teacher insisted I should try something which I know about, to start with. So me and my friend constructed a simple dynamo and made a LED glow. Finding right kind of bulb, wires, etc., was not as easy as we had imagined. Only when we worked with the carpenter we all understood about the quality of wood, cutting, drilling are all skills. Now I know science is not just formulas and laws, but we need many other skills if we should become scientists,” said Madhumita, a class VI student from Bangalore.

Stakeholders and Resources
Ours is a country with a rich heritage, wisdom, traditional knowledge, practices, various art forms, and we have lots of strength. With its vast information technology resources, excellent scientific institutions, dedicated teaching community and young children as our assets, India can integrate these by innovative science communication platforms.

Where do we miss out? In identifying the resources as well stakeholders and the targets, informing them and integrating them. This is what is to be done. Blogs, worksheets, videos or short films on science can bring in creative people to our fold and give a new dimension to learning science. The minute this is done, we can expect some change to follow in the next few decades. A platform that integrates and takes it to the common people is what is needed. A movement where ideas and information can be disseminated in various languages using technology is long awaited. Time has come to unleash the power of science communication that is waiting to be unfolded. And this is the right time to do it!

The author is a person who likes to spend her waking hours with children talking science. She is also the Head, Department of Physics, DG Vaishnav College, Chennai