Aug. 29, 2022

Pick me! Inquisitive minds ask about insects, cities, auroras, and brains

UCalgary researchers connect with kids in Calgary Public Library’s Ask a Scientist summer series
Seated children watch a scientist enthusiastically present
Anitha Ravishankar presents on auroras and space weather for Ask a Scientist Julia MacGregor, University of Calgary

Researchers need to modify their language use when speaking to scientists in different fields. But can you communicate your research to a public audience or an audience comprising questioning young minds? Six university faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students took on this outreach exercise to inspire future scientists by sharing their research areas with children aged eight to 12 this summer for Ask a Scientist.

Ask a Scientist is part of the Calgary Public Library’s Ultimate Summer Challenge, an opportunity for families to participate in reading, activities, and free curated programming for kids, teens, and adults. This was the second time Knowledge Engagement (KE) at the University of Calgary worked with the library to connect university researchers for the first in-person offering of a four-part speaker series.

The KE unit in the Research Services Office supports university researchers and community organizations with partnership matchmaking opportunities, and knowledge mobilization planning and strategy. Ask a Scientist is an example of a creative knowledge mobilization opportunity to share research knowledge with the community.

Two scientists wear white lab coats and stand in front of a monitor with a picture of a cartoon brain wearing glasses

Kaylan Burns and Guang Yang study brain development and were excited for the chance to present as part of Ask a Scientist.

DeAnna Kweens, University of Calgary

A knowledge mobilization opportunity

Dr. Guang Yang, PhD, associate professor in the departments of Medical Genetics, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cumming School of Medicine, and PhD student Kaylan Burns, study brain development. In the Yang Laboratory, they explore neural stem cells and development disorders and collaborate with clinical geneticists to study how those different disease genes identified in patients affect brain development.

Neither of them had presented a talk to kids on their research area before but Burns drew on her past experience as a science camp counsellor to lead their presentation’s development. “When I am talking to adults or kids, I need to use casual language and absolute minimal jargon to make the presentation accessible,” says Burns.

“The goal is not for the kids to leave the session with all this information about the brain, but for them to leave with a feeling of inspiration or interest.”

“This was a new experience for us, and we were excited for the opportunity to introduce how science leads to knowledge and how that can change lives,” says Yang, who is a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. “You can’t go too deep into the topic, it's the journey to finding knowledge that is important.”

headshots of 4 of the Ask a Scientist presenters

From left: Natalie Robertson, Anitha Ravishankar, Samuel Robinson, and Tobyn Neame were four of the presenters involved in Ask a Scientist.

a child waits patiently to ask a question with her hand raised

Julia MacGregor, University of Calgary

Natalie Robertson is well versed in community outreach through her work as an urban resilience strategist but had not done a talk for children before. The PhD student in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape is exploring retrofitting cities for climate change, and her visual talk on cities needed to be reframed for her audience as she went.

“You have to understand the vibe in the room, and they are here for fun,” says Robertson. “I ended up skipping through content and started extracting information from them rather than lecturing.”

Robertson asked the kids if an alien arrived, what parts of a city would you show them. “You could see the cogs turning and that’s the best part.” One child in the back contributed to Robertson’s questions throughout the presentation. “They were able to spot the different design elements in city pictures and were an absolute delight — that is a future urban planner in the making.”

Dr. Anitha Ravishankar, PhD, postdoctoral associate, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Faculty of Science, is investigating how auroral particles in the atmosphere affect radio wave transmissions to help increase the accuracy of communications. Her interest in astronomy started when she was in high school, and she pursued her graduate studies in solar physics and space weather. With previous public outreach activities in India and Poland, this summer was her first experience in Canada doing talks on auroras and space weather for both Ask a Scientist and Minds in Motion.

“It was pretty fun,” says Aila, age 9, who attended Ravishankar’s Ask a Scientist session. “My favourite part was the explaining of the aurora and something new that I learned was that auroras are dangerous.”

Ravishankar had previously given this talk to adults. After reviewing her content, she toned down the information to convey the basic concepts and included more pictures to capture the attention of the kids.

“I wanted to make the conversation flow to allow them to grasp the science,” she says. “I realize I can’t keep talking, I need to ask them questions and create a conversation. Learn what they know, and then improvise on what knowledge they have.”

A group of children get up and move around like insects

Tobyn Neame and Samuel Robinson created a series of games for their session, which included having kids stand up and dance out insect moves.

Kristen Kokura

Dr. Samuel Robinson, PhD, postdoctoral associate, and MSc student Tobyn Neame of the Agriculture Biodiversity and Conservation Lab, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, were well versed in public engagement activities and excited to lead a talk on insects. Insects become a tool for ecology, and a topic Neame is passionate about, bringing their private collection of insects, butterflies, and moths as well as caterpillars they are raising at home to the session.

“We weren’t going to talk strictly about our own research,” says Neame. “If we had decided to talk about agriculture and the distribution of insects, it would have been more challenging to translate.”

The pair created a series of games and used a USB microscope to project different insect specimens on the screen. “Kids aren’t any different to present to than the general public, just more excited,” says Neame. “You don’t have to talk down to them, just explain things in clear language.”

“The general public is interested in science and the scientific process but are almost completely alienated from what it actually is,” says Robinson. “When I talk about our lab, they think of people running around in white coats and goggles. This is about making people familiar with what being a scientist is actually like, and how they look.”

Advice for preparing a public talk

Robinson suggests thinking first about misconceptions in your research field and preparing to address those. “Our lab group always talks about honeybees, because it's a large area of misconception — they don’t need saving, we have more honeybees on earth than we did before,” he says. “It’s like saying save the birds and conserving chickens, you have to do a lot of myth busting.”

Ravishankar says to acknowledge that you won’t be able to cover everything you want to in your talk. “People in the audience may not give the response you expect, don’t be disheartened,” she says. “Learn from the experience and recognize that this is the fun part of being a scientist.”

Aila says that if she could ask a scientist anything it would be to explain emotions. If you can help answer her question or want to participate in future knowledge mobilization opportunities for your research, contact the KE team.

Knowledge Engagement (KE) in the Research Services Office builds and maintains meaningful partnerships for research between the University of Calgary and community organizations to create knowledge with impact to benefit the community.

KE would like to acknowledge the contributions of the university researchers who presented as part of the virtual 2021 Ask a Scientist series: Dr. Alejandro Ramirez Serrano, PhD, professor, Schulich School of Engineering; Dr. Penny Pexman, PhD, professor, Faculty of Arts; Dr. Morris Scantlebury, MD, associate professor, Cumming School of Medicine; and Dr. Michele Anholt, DVM, One Health.