A few weeks ago I joined many of my fellow AAAS If/Then Ambassadors for a Meet-and-Greet event in Dallas with our bright orange statues. During that day I roamed between the Perot Museum, the Dallas Arboretum, and Pegasus Park, the three locations where our 120+ statues are currently located. I had a blast talking with both kids and adults, but my biggest highlight was an Alka-Seltzer rocket activity I did with kids at the Arboretum.
But here’s a confession: I was very nervous about this event.
I had no prep — just an activity name and a place to be at a given time — and I’m not a specialist at working with kids. In fact, I can’t even tell you when the last time I did a science event with elementary-school-aged kids was. Would I know what to do for the activity? How would I talk to kids this young about science, let alone rocket science? And was I just going to be stuck standing there awkwardly?
When I arrived, the Arboretum’s volunteer was passing out kid-sized safety glasses to a crowd of 15-20 children. My fellow ambassador and I exchanged a nervous look; we both felt totally unprepared. So, to start, we listened to the volunteer’s spiel and answered only the questions we were asked.
The activity is a relatively simple one, luckily. The volunteer added some water to a small canister (for the Olds among us, think a 35-mm film canister), dropped in a piece of Alka-Seltzer, put on the lid, and set the whole thing on the ground, lid-down. In seconds, the build-up of carbon dioxide inside popped the lid off the canister, and the little rocket shot up in the air.
Kids, naturally, love this. And, I quickly learned, it doesn’t especially matter how high the rocket flies. Even ones that made it only a couple feet up drew delight from our audience.
But, as I watched, the real point of the exercise dawned on me. We weren’t trying to teach these kids rocket science or chemistry or physics. The goal was to show them how scientists think. And to do that, the volunteer asked the kids questions. He showed them variations on the experiment — more Alka-Seltzer, hotter water — and let the kids guide what steps we tried next.
Pretty soon, my colleague and I took over. After each launch, we’d point out what we noticed — wow, there’s a lot of Alka-Seltzer left here on the ground — and listen to the ideas the kids volunteered. Maybe we should try more water! Maybe we could tape the lid on so there’s more time to build up gas! Our young audience was full of ideas. So we tried them, one after another, tweaking the rocket as we went.
Sometimes their ideas were good ones; sometimes they were ones that I knew would not work. We tried them anyway. Because the goal of this exercise wasn’t to get the most powerful rocket; it was to inspire them to think and act scientifically. No one advances as a scientist by being told, “No, that’s a dumb idea, and we won’t even try it.” Instead, we listened to ideas and observations from everyone. And that was a big hit!
Many kids and their parents stuck around for the full half hour, trying out idea after idea with us. Some kids were quicker to raise their hands than others, but we made sure that our behavior reflected our willingness to listen to anyone, and, as activity leaders, we sometimes gently made space for the more quiet kids to speak up.
The whole thing was a smashing success. We still had a sizable crowd when it was time to pack up, so I stayed and chatted with kids and parents. One boy, in particular, was eager to say hi. He had been one of the most consistent volunteers of ideas. “You have the mind of a scientist,” I told him. “You’re already a scientist. Just hold on to that curiosity and creativity in approaching problems.” From the look on his face, I imagine no one had ever told him that he was a scientist, but really, that’s why we do science demos. It’s so that people realize that they are and can be scientists.
What have you learned in taking science to kids? Let me know in the comments below!
Want to get more tips and tricks for communicating science? Check out my newsletter and sign up to make sure you never miss a post!
(Image credits: Dallas Arboretum Staff)