Sonia Singhal: Explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old.


This post was originally written for the BEACON Center blog.

How do you know that you understand a scientific concept?

When you can explain it to a four-year-old.

While this is not a situation I encounter in my day-to-day work, studying viral evolution in Dr. Ben Kerr’s lab at the University of Washington, I do face it frequently as a Science Communication Fellow with the Pacific Science Center. On a Saturday morning every couple of months, I take the bus down to Seattle Center, and in the bright, airy Ackerly Gallery of the Pacific Science Center, I set up a table with boxes of colored beads and sheaves of colored paper. These items form the backbone of the activities I am developing to teach visitors to the Pacific Science Center about evolution.

I run two activities. The first activity, which demonstrates mutation, is a drawing game. Visitors choose a simple line drawing and copy it as many times as they can in one minute. I then encourage them to tell me how their drawings compare to the original drawing. The second activity demonstrates selection. I set up boxes with colored beads, representing bacteria with different traits. Each box contains beads of predominantly one color, with a few beads of other colors mixed in. Visitors pour out the beads and notice the different colors. They then explore how the different colors – the different traits – are important by choosing colored paper backgrounds (antibiotics) that will “kill” beads with a matching color.

Biology grad students Sonia Singhal, Carrie Glenney, and post doc Brian Connelly in front of the activity table at the Pacific Science Center’s UW-centric “Paws-On-Science” event.
  
The activities have been designed so that any visitor to the Science Center, regardless of their age or background, could learn from them. However, I find that I get mostly 4- to 11-year-olds visiting my table. Interacting with them is demanding, hectic, frustrating, great fun, and incredibly rewarding, often all at once. Some of the children take their time copying a few pictures; some of them get into the game and make so many copies that they run out of room on the page. Some of them like to color-code their beads after pouring them out. Some of them want to pour out every bead from every box to make a multicolored bead soup. Some of them want to take home the boxes, or the beads, or the colored pieces of paper, or even the plush microbes that I bring in from my advisor’s office as props. But they all love making drawings and playing with the beads. Even when I don’t feel I’m getting my point across, I have fun watching them have fun.

The children teach me as much as – if not more than – I teach them. Working with them forces me to explain my research without jargon, and for a 4-year-old, this includes words like “bacteria” and “reproduce”. It stretches me to think of analogies between my research and the children’s everyday lives. For example, I will explain to them that bacteria copy themselves, and sometimes those copies look a little different from the parent, “just like you look a little different from your mom or your dad.” Most importantly, working with children challenges my assumptions. The media is rife with evolutionary stories involving antibiotic resistance and emerging diseases, so to those of us working in experimental evolution, viruses and bacteria are obvious examples of evolution in action. However, most of the children at the Pacific Science Center do not understand that viruses and bacteria replicate; they view germs as static forces rather than dynamic populations. And it turns out that this single point is a key hinge for explaining evolution. If the microbes are not copying themselves, they have very few avenues for dramatic changes.

The Pacific Science Center believes in giving its visitors freedom to explore. As in a typical museum, there are placards to read, but there are also levers to pull, wheels to spin, pressure pads to jump on, and water nozzles to aim at moving parts. In the same spirit, I let the visitors decide which activity they want to try. Usually they only choose one or the other, but sometimes I can take them through both and watch them fit the two activities together. One young girl decided that she wanted to draw, so we went through the drawing game; then she decided that she wanted to know what was going on with the colored boxes, so I had her choose one and pour out the beads. “Not all of them are pink,” she noticed. I told her, “That’s right. Just like you made copies of that drawing, these germs are making copies of themselves. And just like your copies were all a little different, the germ copies are a little different too.” “Oooohhh,” she said, with the intonation of a “eureka” moment.

The activities are flexible enough that I can layer in additional details. One boy liked the bead activity so much that he played it three times in a row. The fourth time, I asked if he wanted to try something a little different. “This time,” I said, “let’s give this person medicine before he gets sick, rather than after he gets sick.” I had him pour the beads directly onto the colored background, rather than adding the background afterwards. He immediately responded differently to the activity. Where before, he would dump out all the beads at once, now he shook them out a few at a time and stopped every four or five beads to remove the ones that matched the background color. He understood that, since the environment was different, the population of beads that were able to “survive” was also different.

My most interesting interactions, though, occur when the children bring their own questions to me. One girl, who already knew a little bit about disease-causing microbes (“Germs can infect people, or dogs, like parvo,” she told me.), asked a lot of detailed questions about how our bodies fight disease off, and how microbes can hide from immune cells. Another girl and her younger sister wanted to know whether mice were vertebrates or invertebrates. I had to shift gears abruptly to rack my microbe-centered brain for examples of common vertebrates and invertebrates. By the end of our conversation, I was explaining to them the difference between an endoskeleton (an internal skeleton, such as we have) and an exoskeleton (an external skeleton, such as insects have).

Working in an academic research lab requires understanding the minutiae of one’s question, organism, and experiments. At the same time, this fine focus can impede us from communicating the salient points to a non-scientific audience. My work with the Pacific Science Center gives me a way to step back, review the broader context of my research, and decide what is truly necessary for understanding. Although I’m still working out how best to present and explain evolution, I feel that every iteration of my activities brings me a little closer.

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