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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Help Wanted: Science outreach to younger children (age 7-8) [20120131|15:27]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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[with a hint of |A Perfect Circle - Judith [Renholder mix]]

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.

[User Picture]From: innerbrat
2012-01-31 15:39 (UTC)
7-8 year olds can, in my experience, sit through 20 minutes of something that includes powerpoints to illustrate a point. But I would STRONGLY recommend some live demonstrations just to keep it interesting.

7/8 is Key Stage 3, which is when they start differentiating forces. Newton's Laws (which is where payload distribution would come in, right?) would be a little later, but I bet they could handle it. At earlier ages, I'd worry about them being able to wrap their heads around scale, but I think these kids will get it.

Don't make them do maths - people shut off when you phrase a maths question even if it's an easy one - but if you want to compare velocities, times and distances, I'd have the distances already worked out for them - "700 years. In a car you'd get this far..."

One good way of comparing lengths like this is to pre-cut lengths of the widest ribbon you can find according to a scale. If you have a globe that can represent the earth, then use that scale.

"Here's the Earth. Pretty small, right? This is how far you'd get in a car at 70mph for 700 years. But the solar system is THIS BIG."

Use numbers - say numbers. Just don't expect them to remember the numbers.

That's my quick brainstorm.
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[User Picture]From: sashajwolf
2012-01-31 15:48 (UTC)
7/8 is Key Stage 3

Key Stage 3 is ages 11-14. These kids are just going to be starting Key Stage 2. Key Stage 2 does include some basic stuff on forces, though.

Totally agree with you on live demonstrations and not doing maths. And the ribbon idea is great.
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[User Picture]From: sashajwolf
2012-01-31 15:43 (UTC)
As a parent and a Sunday School teacher of ages 3-11:

You're right, this age group will get fidgety way before 20 minutes of a conventional lecture-style presentation - especially during an outing, which is Exciting, meaning that any tendencies to hyperactivity will be exaggerated. 5 minutes is more realistic. Most of them will certainly be able to focus on a slide for 2-3 minutes, though, although you may need to use a pointer (real or virtual) to reinforce where they're supposed to be looking.

There's very little you can do to stop the questions from going off on a tangent, but your instincts are right - eyecatching images will help at least a bit. The more interactive you can make the session, the better. If at all possible, you need to give them something hands-on to do that relates to your topic, although I don't know how practical that will be in a cinema setting. As far as it's possible to predict questions, I think it's inevitable with this topic that you will get asked something about aliens, which in turn may well lead to something about Doctor Who and hence time travel, so it would probably be a good idea to have thought in advance about how you're going to field those.

Most of them will not be able to differentiate between science and engineering, and if they have any idea of the difference between different branches of science, it will be hazy. Unless you happen to get a geeky kid who reads about this stuff in their spare time, they will not know what mass is - R has just been covering this (in maths rather than in science) at age 13. The BBC has some curriculum resources aimed at Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11) here, which may give you an idea. If you click through to the teachers' resources, there is some stuff on the Earth, Moon etc that you might want to look at.

Edited at 2012-01-31 03:49 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-07 21:43 (UTC)
[Sorry I didn't respond earlier - apparently I replied to most of the comments and then got diverted!]

Thank you very much for these helpful ideas. I do have some stock answers for questions about aliens, why Pluto isn't a planet, if I've been to space myself and whether or not there's a black hole at the centre of our galaxy. I shall have to come up with some for time travel and Doctor Who!

I think I'll need to break down the concepts I listed in this post even further and find a couple of ways to demonstrate each one physically. I like innerbrat's idea of using ribbons to represent relative distances, and getting the kids to unroll them.
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[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2012-01-31 16:21 (UTC)
This sounds like a terrific opportunity to revisit the PBS show 3-2-1 Contact. I just You-Tubed it, and it looks like there are some episodes online. This just popped into my head because in my house, we were watching this show at about the age to which you will be presenting.

I dunno- aside from fun Science TV, you might get an idea of ways they presented ideas to kids at the age you're describing?

(I am going to watch the one on surface tension...)

(Didn't one of the kids get to go to Space Camp? I think so...)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 22:16 (UTC)
Once I'm done with my group meeting next Monday, I'll set aside some time to do some YouTube-based research of 3-2-1 Contact. Thanks for reminding me about it. :)
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[User Picture]From: flexagain
2012-01-31 16:58 (UTC)
I'm not sure I'm competent on how much small children can tolerate, or are likely to be interested in, but at a guess most children like silly numbers, so if you want to give them ideas about things like how far away other stars are, then you can come up with numbers like how long it would take to get there, travelling at the fastest speed which people have ever travelled at (eg Apollo 10, 39897 km/h, so it's 115000 years to get to Proxima Centauri!). You could also use things like the Habitable Exoplanet Catalogue to get an idea of how many plausible options there are, and how far away (Currently I think we've found *two* candidate planets in a universe of 30 sextillion stars!). Actually, forgot the small children, I like these gee-whizz numbers!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 22:11 (UTC)
The general consensus seems to be that even those simple calculations will probably fly over their heads, so I'll probably have to find ways to illustrate things without too many numbers. Although I've got to find a way to work in the bit about two candidate planets among 30 sextillion stars because that's a fantastic fact, thanks!
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[User Picture]From: sadira42
2012-01-31 23:41 (UTC)
Oooh, I just did a relative size and distance of objects in the Solar System with middle school students. I do think it would be very doable as a short presentation instead of a lab for younger kids. I used an orange for the Sun and much tinier things for the planets, but since it'll be in a movie theater, maybe you can do a beach ball for the sun and then have a selection of smaller balls and ask the kids to tell you which planet they think they represent. Also, for distance, I used adding tape and scaled down the distance to correspond with my materials (the orange and whatnot). You can do the same, pre-measure the lengths, and just unroll them to show how crazy the distances get.

I doubt young children know what mass is, actually, so I would define that. Same for science versus engineering, I bet. But I could be under-estimating. I'm sure those kids who are really into science will know some of the concepts that you're thinking of explaining.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 22:14 (UTC)
I think I might leave out the sun and use the big thing (a basketball - I have one in the house) to represent Saturn. That way I can use slightly bigger things for the Earth (a marble) and the other planets.

I also like the tape idea. I shall try and think of a way to show them the distances I mention above. Getting volunteers to unroll the tape would be a great way to get them involved as well.

These are great ideas, thank you!
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[User Picture]From: freya7
2012-02-01 00:05 (UTC)
the secret to keep their attention and the discipline is to change activity (and type of activity of course, e.g. listening followed by game) every 5 minutes, so the hyperactive ones won't have a chance to go overboard.

(sorry for the intrusion, I was a teacher with 5yrs old kids, your lesson seems really interesting :-D)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 22:05 (UTC)
OK, so if I narrow down my messages to two or three things, but repeat them in different (active) ways, then I can hope for at least a little bit of retention?

It's not an intrusion at all; your input is very helpful, thank you!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 22:09 (UTC)
I'm pretty sure I can predict most of the off-topic but still space-related questions I'll get asked. I know at some point I'll get one of these three questions:

1) Have YOU been in space, miss?
2) Do aliens exist?
3) Why isn't Pluto a planet?

I now have stock answers for these. :D

I think I won't bother trying to distinguish between different types of science and will just call everything SCIENCE. (I plan to say it as if it is in caps.)

I'll try to keep my explanations visual and simple. No equations will be used. :D

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[User Picture]From: danaid_luv
2012-02-01 07:28 (UTC)
Unless things are wildly different overseas, seven year olds (late first/early second-graders) will start to squirm well before the 30 minute mark. It won't be a reflection on you or your information, it's simply the age. And the fact that they are there to watch a fillum. If the students are hand-picked for their maturity & interest in the sciences it might help but that's unlikely?

I would suggest talking quite clearly. Not too fast. Be enthusiastic (overly so like you'd never dare do w/ adults) and use your hands, your body language to keep them dialed in. When I was quite young and stuck on forever car-trips, my mum would help me understand time by breaking it into a unit of measurement I could understand--1 hour= 1 Sesame Street, & 1/2 hour=1 Mr. Rogers. Your group will be more advanced that that, but make it something they can relate to. And as silly as this might sound, if you wear all neutral/grey/black, etc. have a small spot of colour they can zero in on, like a pin or brooch.

I wish I could be there to (silently) cheer from the back row!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 22:02 (UTC)
The students won't be pre-selected, I don't think. It would probably be best for me to keep it to 20 minutes.

Slow down, exaggerate my American-ness, come up with comparisons to things they'll be familiar with, wear a red scarf. Got it. Thank you very much!
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[User Picture]From: jixel
2012-02-01 09:44 (UTC)
I think if you show up with a light saber you will own them lol.

Like the guest ion of live props, maybe some little handout for them halfway to wake them up?

A mars bar maybe? Oh I kill myself!

Good luck! I love the work you do!!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 21:57 (UTC)
I don't have a light saber. I do have a large Lego model of the space shuttle. And another of the Millenium Falcon. Maybe I'll bring those, although with some of the other props I'm planning to bring, my rucksack will be getting rather full.
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[User Picture]From: jixel
2012-02-01 09:46 (UTC)
Oh jeez, iPad spellcheck.. Not guest ion! Suggestion!
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[User Picture]From: alice_mccoy
2012-02-01 10:33 (UTC)
Having just spent an evening trying to teach 7-10 years on how to sew a straight line of running stitch I wish you luck!

Comparison length ribbons is as complicated as my lot could cope with.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 21:50 (UTC)
Ha, thanks. I probably shouldn't be aiming to teach them too much, or hold out much hope for retention of any facts I do happen to impart to them. That's really for their teachers to do. My job is mostly to be enthusiastic and demonstrate that Girls Are Scientists Too.
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From: edical
2012-02-01 12:29 (UTC)
At that age, they wouldn't know the difference between science and engineering. They may know about atoms but not subatomic particles too well - they'd have heard of protons, electrons and neutrons but not know what makes them different. (I talked to one kid about the creation of elements up to lead in stars etc...) (I'm using the Aussie educational system as my basis though)

Powerpoints should be ok (i've done stuff for primary school aged kids - not about astro though, bu about bio/geo stuff) If you can get hands-on stuff for them to look at and touch and feel (eg models of the planets etc, or materials which have the same consistency of the planets... stuff like how saturn is so 'light' it'd float in water if you found a lake big enough blah blha)

They probably wouldn't know the difference between mass and weight, but that's an opportunity for you to explain.... use simple terms like mass is how much stuff is in something, weight is how hard it gets pulled to the ground ("force" wouldn't mean the same thing to them as it does to you and I)

So 1 kg of mass on earth = 1 kg of mass on the moon, but the weight of the 1 kg object on the moon would be 1/6th on earth blah blah

Not sure if that helps any

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From: pbristow
2012-02-01 13:41 (UTC)
"use simple terms like mass is how much stuff is in something, weight is how hard it gets pulled to the ground ("force" wouldn't mean the same thing to them as it does to you and I)"

Be careful with that though, as they might get confused with volume. Have a large pre-filled ballon and smaller heavy weight handy, and after explaining it once, hold them up and ask the kids which one has more mass, and whihc one has more volume. *Then* explain how, with less gravity, the lump of metal might only weigh as much as the balloon does here on earth, and the balloon would be so light that you could probably launch it into space just like... *whap*... that! =:o}

HINT: Make sure you whap it in the direction of a responsible adult. You don't want the kids ditracted by a game of balloon handball for the next ten minutes while you chase around the aisles saying "No, give it back to me... No *don't* send it all the way over there!".

(You could maybe do that at the end of the film, though, as a reminder of what they learned earlier.)

Edited at 2012-02-01 01:46 pm (UTC)
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From: pbristow
2012-02-01 13:25 (UTC)
Hmmm... I'm not a teacher, but I just tried thinking back to that age, and one evry pertinent memory springs up: We were asked to do an art project, each creating a collage or something on an A3 or maybe even A2-sized piece of sugar paper. We had to think about what we wanted to do first, and tell the teacher, and tehn get on with it.

I thought about what I'd been doing in other projects recently (all quite serious stuff about the solar system and moon landings and so on. I'd even tried to turn the page of 0s and 1s that was published in a book about a Mars expedition into a picture of the planet's surface, like the book said it was supposed to be, on some squared paper. Alas, I had no idea about binary numbers, so I was just turning each 1 into a black square and leaving each 0 as a white square... It didn't work. =:o\ )... and I wanted to ring the changes a bit, so when the teacher got round to me, I said I wanted to do a picture of "the Planet Family" - I had in mind big cartoony faces, with Saturn's rings sticking out as his great big ears, and a nasty red blotch on Jupiter's cheek, and so on.

Miss Walker (or was it Miss Jupp?) just rolled her eyes and said "not planets *again*, Paul!"

I was quite hurt!

She let me do it though. =:o}
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-02-02 21:56 (UTC)
Well, I'm glad she let you do it, even if she did pull a face!

I'm getting the feeling from the suggestions that have been made that the more involved I can get them to feel in the process of being given information, the better. So I'm probably best off introducing each topic with questions. For instance, if I show them a basketball and say, Pretend this is Saturn, I would follow that up with, which of these is the Earth? How many of you think it's this marble? How many of you think it's this cricket ball? Then the ones who guess the marble can feel pleased with themselves, and the ones who guess the cricket ball will be spurred to think harder before they guess the next time.
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