Explaining My Research to 10 Year Olds

Me sampling in Sabino Canyon

Me sampling in Sabino Canyon. Photo by Jess Gwinn.

Last week, the Bug Geek issued a challenged to the science blogging community: explain your research to 10-year-olds in 250 words or less.  She’s writing an application that will allow her to do science outreach with kids and part of it is writing a description of her work to 8- to 12-year-olds.  She thought it was a good experience for everyone.  I adore doing outreach and I work with a lot of kids, so being able to communicate to the younger crowd about science is something near and dear to my heart.  So, I sat down and started typing out my response to the challenge immediately.

I promptly ran into a roadblock though: I couldn’t talk about all three areas of research I’ve been involved with in only 250 words.  And it turns out that I wasn’t the only one with this problem!  Ted MacRae at Beetles in the Bush ended up writing one paragraph for his actual work dealing with genetically modified crops and another for his full-time hobby of collecting and describing beetles from around the world.  In the end, I decided to choose only one area of research, my work monitoring aquatic habitats using insects, and focused on that.  Maybe I’ll write two more paragraphs describing my work with giant water bug egg respiration and my dragonfly swarm research in the future, but for now I present my exactly 250 word summary:

Sabino Canyon

Me sampling for aquatic insects. Photo by Dave Walker.

I love bugs!  In fact, I love them so much that I got a job working with them.  I am an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects!  But not just any entomologist.  I study insects that live in the water, aquatic insects.  Did you know there are thousands of species of insects that live in lakes and rivers?  Some have really interesting structures like snorkels to help them breathe or suction cups to keep from being washed away in a river.  They have fun names too, like caddisfly, predaceous diving beetle, and water scorpion!  All of these underwater insects have a place they belong and a job that they do that ultimately help the plants and animals that live with them survive. 

Studying aquatic insects is important because they can tell us about the water they live in, like whether their water has been polluted or flooded.  We often drink the water that insects live in, so we can tell if water is safe and unpolluted by looking at the insects living in it.  If there are a lot of insects that like clean water, then there has been little pollution or other problems in the water.  If you find mostly insects that can live in very dirty water, that tells you that there is something wrong and you can try to fix the problem. 

By studying aquatic insects, I am learning more about our world, but also helping the people who live here.  I have the best job ever!

Me Sampling the Salt River

Me Sampling the Salt River

I work with a lot of second graders, so I think this statement might actually be a bit young for the average 10-year-old.  I adjust how I speak about my work based on the average intellectual level of whatever group I’m working with.  It’s a lot harder to do that in print though!  So, I’m hoping I don’t insult any 4th graders out there by being condescending.

Now, how to summarize why I study giant water bug egg respiration in 250 words or less…  Yikes, that’s going to be a tough one!

(Morgan Jackson at Biodiversity in Focus also took up the Bug Geek’s challenge and described his work with fly taxonomy in his 250 word statement.  It’s really great, so I recommend that you head on over and check it out!)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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15 thoughts on “Explaining My Research to 10 Year Olds

  1. In my years of working at a zoo, I have found the second/third grade level to be the best for explaining scientific research to the average visitor. I forget sometimes that they don’t have the extensive background that I have and may have no idea what I’m talking about unless we start with a really simple explanation. I think you’re on the right track.

    • Thanks! And I find myself taking a similar approach, especially in groups of mixed ages of people. You’re right – most people don’t have the background to understand scientific without that simple explanation, so I often start there and then increase the complexity depending on how the group responds. Works well for me most of the time!

  2. Pre-K kids ( 3-5) really are intrigued by bugs and pick up a lot of information (little kids love tiny things…they have those tiny fingers…) – it creates foundation for elementary grades – if you can keep that interest alive, then they will want to know more as they get older. All kids are more capable of info / vocab than people expect – IF the person speaking is wildly enthusiastic about their subject- just watch faces to see if it’s going in before watering down too much…get them to raise hand/ ask question if not understanding…they love specific examples to make things concrete – like which bug lives in clean water – which ones like yucky water (and have pictures if possible…and be ready to tell why the bug wants yucky water…)
    Great job – and nice writing! It’s important.

    • If I were going to turn my little 250 word description into a presentation, I would absolutely have live insects illustrating the differences between clean water insects and dirty water insects and describe in much more detail how insects choose their homes, how they move to new homes when conditions deteriorate, and why some things can survive in polluted water while other things cannot. But, in 250 words, it’s hard to go into a lot of detail. It’s a lot easier to write a whole lesson plan or develop an outreach presentation than it is to write a 250 word description of a complex research program. Fun exercise though! And something I think is important to do every now and again.

  3. You sold me =) I thought it was simple and informative. The challenge sounds like a fun exercise. Although I don’t work with insects, I might attempt this challenge with my area of study. Thanks a lot!

    • Go for it! It’s rather difficult, but I think it’s a good thing to try every now and again, especially if you don’t work with kids that often. It can be really hard to translate science into regular English that young people can understand, but I believe it’s important that scientists at least try to communicate with a broad, non-scientific audience. It’s good for people to understand science in general, but our funding and continued scientific progress depends on it too!

  4. Nice job, DFW! After Ted submitted his “double-header” version, I wished I had thought to do the same. I’m working on a bunch of different projects, but all have a similar overarching theme, so that’s what I went with. It’s a tough thing to do!

    • Yeah I wish my disparate areas of research have more in common than “aquatic insects.” Would have made writing about all three areas at once easier (or even possible)! I liked your approach, and Ted’s. Both are good options for people who are interested in a lot of different things at once!

  5. Steven Jay Gould once said that if you couldn’t explain something to a ten-year-old, you didn’t really understand it yourself. I observe that Steven Jay Gould was a biologist, so he may not have the same experience with the concept that a quantum physicist would have. : – )

    • Ha ha! True! Then again, there are people like Neil deGrasse Tyson that are able to talk about astrophysics to broad audiences quite well, so it’s not entirely hopeless for physicists. Still, I think you’re right that biology is a whole lot easier conceptually than some of the other sciences. Might have something to do with our own day to day experiences. We understand behavior and animal anatomy because we see it in ourselves! Gluons and quarks and whatnot are a whole different kind of thing – things that hold the universe together, but not something we can see and interact with. Probably makes it harder to understand.

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