When you look at elementary school students, do you see the next generation of scientists, or tiny terrors to shoo away from lab equipment? Trepidation aside, bringing kids into the lab can be a great means of community outreach. It could not only inspire future researchers; it also shows the nonscientific community (both children and parents) what labs and scientists are really like.
For two years, we have hosted an annual afternoon in the lab for my PI’s son’s elementary school class. With that experience, I can make the following recommendations for bringing kids into your own lab:
1) Break a class into small groups at several stations. Several stations, each run by one or two lab members, will give children a broader experience and help to keep their attention. Breaking a class into groups of 2-4 students who rotate through each station gives each child a chance to participate.
2) Provide hands-on and dynamic activities. Consistently, the favorite “experiment” has been playing with food coloring and vortex-mixers. Non-newtonian solids (“oobleck“) or chasing colors in a dish of milk are potentially messy, but a lot of fun. Another crowd-pleaser is watching things move under the microscope. Our lab used Tetrahymena and HeLa cells. Drosophila, C. elegans, or old-fashioned pond water are other ideas.
It’s fine to show off your particular area of research or specialized techniques—just don’t feel insulted if the kids don’t find your protein-of-interest as fascinating as you do.
3) Don’t underestimate the students. They grasp more than you might imagine! They’re also eager to guess why something may be happening— go ahead and ask them. Helping them to think through what they’re seeing makes the activities scientific, in addition to fun.
4) Invite the parents. This not only helps with crowd control, it also expands your outreach impact. It’s always good to remind the public (and taxpayers) of the value of our enterprise; showing folks around and answering their questions is a great way to do that.
Hosting a “kids’ day” in the lab gives young students and parents a glimpse of what research is like, fuels enthusiasm and curiosity about the natural world, and is a fun bonding experience for lab members. I encourage you to bring in your own group of young scholars for a day in the lab!