Interview with Rita Campos, researcher at the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra (CES-UC), member of the Observatory for Education Policies and Professional Development, and co-coordinator of the Working Group “Citizen Science and Education”
What drove you to get involved in science communication for children?
Rita Campos: My personal answer is that I love being around children. My professional answer is that children, especially the younger ones, can provide great insights on a given science communication or science education activity.
I started working with children by developing activities related to (biological) evolution. This topic is complex and rather abstract and is often misunderstood and even rejected by many, albeit fundamental to numerous dimensions of our daily life and to face many current challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. These activities were first run with primary school children and later in early childhood education. They worked well and it was fascinating to engage in conversations with children about this scientific topic, discuss its possible implications, and see new questions arise.
Children can pose difficult questions, making us rethink our own. Adults tend to underestimate overlook children’s knowledge, experience, and opinions, not recognising their agency. This is something that science can change by including children’s voices and perspectives both in science outreach and research projects.
How can we best reach out to children?
Rita Campos: For example, open days are great for a first-hand look at scientific research institutions, but they are very demanding organisationally. Thus, if there is no capacity to organise such an activity of that scale, you can invite a single school or classroom and prepare some activities for them, or alternatively go to their kindergarten or school.
I advocate for dialogic activities, but a child-oriented newspaper or book using scientific knowledge in the story are also a good way to familiarise children with science. Games are another approach to science, with a great potential to engage children, as they can be active participants and learn while playing.
Once we get to them, how can we best engage them on scientific content?
Rita Campos: I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” for children (or adults). For kids under 10 years old, almost anything will get them interested because they are natural scientists. They are curious and want to understand the world around them. In that case, you “just” need to adapt the language and activities to their age and maturity, and always be willing to change your initial plans.
For younger children, I always use materials that they can manipulate, creating a story (storytelling) and that are based on a creativity-oriented or artistic activity. In fact, I would recommend this approach for any age, adapting it according to the particular situation or audience.
How can scientists improve their communication skills for specific audiences like children?
Rita Campos: The first step to being a good science communicator would be to do a self-assessment of your communication skills and then work on improving it further. If you are communicating orally, non-verbal communication is very important: for example, having a smile on your face, looking people in the eye, using your hands to help express an idea.
If you are passionate about your work, people will notice you and will most likely be interested too. And if you are talking to non-scientists – including children, try to avoid scientific jargon as much as possible. Specifically, for children it is important to use stories and examples from everyday life.
You should also be flexible to deviate from your initial topic. Children are transparent: if they are not interested in what you are saying, they will let you know. The best is to just adapt the communication or activity to their questions. Even if things don’t go according to plan, listening and engaging in a children-led dialogue can have a huge impact on how they perceive scientists, thereby encouraging their interest and trust in science.
How do children and society benefit from an interest in science?
Rita Campos: Science and scientific knowledge have an impact on almost every dimension of our lives: health, education, justice, construction, transport, agriculture… Science can be a lens into the past, present, and future as well as into other worldviews, knowledge, and experiences. It can improve our daily lives, drive change, and fight injustice.
Every day, when making either political or individual decisions, we use scientific knowledge. Even if we don’t realise it. Getting interested and involved in science will increase this awareness and will help us better understand the evidence and make informed decisions. Involving children in this process is even more important as they will grow up nurturing their curious minds and developing a critical mind and reflective thinking, making them more responsible citizens.