January 31st, 2012

lolcat: science

Help Wanted: Science outreach to younger children (age 7-8)

I’ve been asked to do a brief (20-30 minutes) outreach session with younger schoolchildren about robotic space exploration before they see a screening of WALL.E. I’ll have to present this session 5-6 times at different cinemas around London, so I want to make sure it’s good.

I’d like to illustrate for them what I feel is the central message of WALL.E, which is that even with the power to explore the solar system and the galaxy with robotic tools, the Earth is still unique and precious to humanity. Here are a couple of ideas I had for topics:

  • Orders of magnitude. Ask them if they think the Earth is big. Show them how it compares with other planets and stars using a YouTube video like this one.

  • Relative speeds. The passengers on the Axiom were traveling for 700 years. How far could you get in 700 years traveling at 70 mph in a car? Would you even get out of the solar system? What about on a spacecraft like Cassini, traveling at 9000 mph? How about if you were traveling at a million miles per hour? Could you reach the edge of our galaxy?

With a couple of additional steps, I thought this could segue nicely into working out how long it might take to reach another planet that was anything like the Earth, assuming we messed the planet up so badly we couldn’t go back.

I normally work with secondary school children (age 15-19). They’re more accustomed to sitting through a traditional style of PowerPoint lecture with lots of pretty pictures and movies, punctuated with occasional questions, for up to 40 minutes. Slightly younger children can handle this for about half the amount of time before they get fidgety. I don’t know if this works with much younger children. I presume not.

I would like to make the session interactive and fun, but I don’t want to lose complete control of the direction of questions (e.g. to the point where they start asking me about black holes and time travel). I thought strategic images might help to keep them focused. Will children this young be OK with a few PowerPoint slides in the background as a basis for me talking about specific topics for 2-3 minutes?

I also have very little idea what the average level of science knowledge is for this age group. Can they differentiate between science and engineering? What about the different branches of science? Can I assume, for instance, that they’ll know what “mass” is, if I try to explain spacecraft payload distribution?

Any information you can provide whether as a parent, a teacher, or a person who simply has more experience with seven-year-olds than I do would be much appreciated.
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