Going Back to School for an Education

I have had some surprising invitations in my day. A traditional healer in Zimbabwe once invited me to try her herbal Viagra out. There have been invites to celebrations that required very specific dress codes that could probably only be satisfied by visiting dark corners of the internet. They were just about topped by an invite to hang out at Brooklyn Public School for their science fair.

Why so surprising? Well, I don’t really have any link to Brooklyn (even the Sydney one) beyond an under 10s game of cricket that went pretty well and getting engaged on a nearby river a while ago. On top of that, I don’t really count myself as much of a scientist. I’d like to be able to develop some researching skills, but there’s something about failing to get grants, generate much data or publish life changing papers that makes me think I have a way to go. But then you bug someone who is quite an impressive scientist (who you can find as @DrBrocktagon on Twitter) and someone else falls through and before you know it you’re a fallback option.

The Welcome Mat

The Welcome Mat

Having said yes to doing a presentation, I had a few things to face up to. Anyone will tell you not to work with kids and animals. I assume it’s fear of unpredictability that drives that saying, though I would usually laugh at such balderdash when armed with a large array of controlled substances. The great thing about tackling a different audience is it gives you a chance to re-examine how you communicate ideas. There have been other posts where I’ve mentioned some thoughts on presentations (like here and here and here) but I can’t think of a time when I’ve been able to chat to a bunch of kids. So while some stuff was the same, there were a few lessons that I think will probably make me PhD better.

1. Re-examining What You Do

A new audience gives the chance to view what you do through the eyes of another. When wrestling with the reluctant vagaries of data collection or sinking in the latest grant rejection, it’s easy to feel like the project that once excited you might not be that great. Figuring out which bit to talk about when you can say “actually we’re flying on helicopters to see what shining light into people’s brains might tell us” is a great way to re-engage with the cool stuff that got it all rolling.


2. Less is More

One of the reasons kids can be confronting is they so often hit us with honesty more than we are used to. There’s no agenda, they’ll just make it painfully obvious as they suck the oxygen from the room with yawning mouths that you are boring. The aim here was to cover three things – what is science/who is a scientist, stuff we do at work and how that involves sciencey stuff. Even that was kind of a bit. Maybe 3 ideas was even too much.


3. Kids are Naturals

Spend a day chatting about science stuff with kids and it’s really obvious that for lots of kids science is a natural fit. They have a natural curiosity that seeks ways to understand the world around them. Even more impressive was the rigour of their application of a methodology to answer their questions. Here’s an example – one pair wanted to see if shoe size was related to height. So they sat at a ferry stop and got about 60 people to shed their shoes and get measured. They recorded all the data, and displayed it in all its glory, as well as dividing height by foot length to see if there was a consistent relationship. Then of course there was the guy who did multiple tests of different-sized paper ninja stars to check their flight characteristics. Or the youngster who pursued behavioural testing in dogs. More than 50 dogs on a beach.

Data is so much of the story. Seriously inspiring.

That's a lot of smelly feet to get near.

That’s a lot of smelly feet to get near.

4. There Are Uses for Laser Pointers

It is not for pointing at screens. Really great for demonstrating the interaction of light with interfaces though. Plus lasers.


5. Flexibility is an Expectation

Not because you’ll find yourself competing in long forgotten schoolyard games in a winner takes all fashion. I hope. Let’s say though that you plan to use a toy to demonstrate helicopter flight. Then you end up in a  room with multiple fans directly over the heads of the kids. Probably best not to be too committed to anything.


6. Audience Testing

Beyond the usual practice, for a chat to kids I highly recommend testing the material out on kids in advance if you have some handy amenable to spending a few minutes (or amenable to a bribe to do that). I had an easy option in three gents aged 7, 5 and 2. The 7 year old was right into it. The 5 year old gave up a decent number of laughs. The 2 year old went and hid in a box. You can’t please everyone I guess.


7. The Unplanned Bit is the Best Bit

The talk was fun but by far the best bit was the questions afterwards. Partly because it showed some kids listened to the stuff I said and they came up with questions. But we also covered anaesthesia, pilots, who I like best on the helicopter, helmets, brain injuries, how incredibly old I am and the worst injuries I’ve come across. It was particularly excellent.


How did it go? Somewhere between having the kids so excited they mobbed me and squeezed so hard an eye popped out like an old stuffed toy and throwing small paper projectiles from boredom (although there were ninja stars handy). It was not just the best talk I’ve had the chance to be a part of any time I can remember, it genuinely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for my own project. A few years in to this part time PhD, that was a lesson I needed to revisit.



2 thoughts on “Going Back to School for an Education

    • The inside story! Plus more lessons for me. Why did I not set up my research to include marshmallows? Pretty handy to stuff up your nose to stop the smell for extreme cases too.

      (Actually, I wouldn’t be much of a doctor if I actually suggested people stick things up their nose – don’t stick things up your nose.)

      Hope you don’t mind me including the photo of your project. I was so overwhelmed by all of them on the day it was one of the few for which I remembered to get a picture.

      Look forward to hearing about your next research project.

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