Explaining Color to 11 Year-olds: Why Science Communication Matters

by Melissa Harding

Why is the sky blue? Does the color blue look the same to everyone? These are some fundamentally puzzling questions to be sure. It can be difficult to explain and understand abstract scientific concepts like these, especially to children. One organization that is attempting to solve this problem, or at least encourage scientists to think more about it, is The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (yes, that Alan Alda). The Alda Center is sponsoring the third year of its Flame Challenge, a contest pitting scientists against each other to see who can best communicate a particular scientific topic to a huge panel of 11 year-old judges. Over 20,000 11 year-old judges, that is. The Challenge stems from Alda’s childhood pondering over the question: What is a flame? Alda’s teacher at the time answered with “oxidation”, which was truly unhelpful to say the least. Children today ask many of those same questions and may have the same kind of trouble getting real answers. The Flame Challenge encourages scientists to create the best possible way of explaining these complex concepts to a difficult audience and helps children get the answers they want.

To choose this year’s challenge question, The Alda Center collected over 800 questions from children all over the world. Color was a recurrent theme, so the question “What is color?” was chosen. Scientists can submit their answers in video, writing or graphics. The Alda Center provides some guidelines for scientists and a very helpful video entitled “Meet an 11 year-old”. Students advise scientists to remember than they are “eleven, not seven”; while they enjoy humor, they do not care for things that are silly or condescending. This is important, because it is tempting to talk down to children instead of just talking to them. Unfortunately for the scientists who make that mistake, the judges are pretty quick to catch them in the act. After being screened for accuracy, the submissions are judged by students all over the world using a standardized rubric and best one is chosen to be the winner.

Alda started this competition to get scientists engaged in effective communication; this is because bad science communication results in scientific illiteracy. It does no one any good to keep the stellar research that is being done stuck in the scientific community. Discoveries are made and published in scientific journals; these journal articles are read by other scientists, but the information they contain rarely makes it to the general public.  A mere 0.013–0.34% of scientific journal articles receive coverage by the mass media.  Non-health related research such as ecology and botany receive even less media attention with only 0.001–0.005% of research articles in these fields receiving coverage. Sometimes this work is very specialized, sometimes it is perceived as irrelevant, or sometimes it is difficult to understand; most of it is not making it to the public. This results in a poor understanding of what a scientist is does. On the other hand, good communication can create a public excited for more knowledge! It encourages life-long learning and a better understanding of the scientific process. It is able, on a broader level, to increase the level of public discourse on issues where scientific concepts affect legislative policy.

In addition to creating a group of scientists who can communicate about their work, The Flame Challenge also has the wonderful side effect of getting kids excited about science. This is a pretty big deal, seeing as research shows that as they age, students have a declining engagement with school in general. These two things go hand in hand; if scientists are more effective communicators of their research and how it applies to real life, then students will be more receptive. There is plenty of evidence showing that students want to engage with things that are real.  Project-based learning, getting students involved in current scientific research, and working on real problems are proven strategies for increasing overall engagement in science. Similarly, effective science communication is able to inform an audience and spark an interest. Effective communication inspires students to pursue STEM careers and develop a passion for life-long learning.

We see this with our Botany in Action Fellows when they speak to students; by communicating their love for science and showing why their research matters in the real world, the Fellows inspire many of the students they speak with to dig deeper into their own passions. They are helping to create a future generation of biologists, chemists, physicists and more. So are projects like those done by The Alda Center and a whole host of other organizations that recognize the importance of informed and excited students. Understanding the best ways to communicate research has repercussions far beyond schools, but starting there is a way to ensure that there are future scientists at all.

To learn more about the Flame Challenge, check out this great link.

To learn more about the public disconnect with scientists and research, check out this blog post.

The above videos are courtesy of the Alda Center for Communicating Science.

2 Comments to “Explaining Color to 11 Year-olds: Why Science Communication Matters”

  1. What a great competition! I’ll make sure to watch some of the entries on Youtube later. I am very excited about science communication geared towards youth in the hopes of sparking a flame in them and getting them passionate about a career or at least a deep personal interest in science. I think youth exposure to science has a great impact on the value they place on science for the rest of their life, so science communicators should really try to make a great impression at an early stage of life.

    • True! There is so much research that shows that pivotal experiences in youth can influence their future career choices. Hopefully more students will participate this year than ever before!

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