How generation Z is learning about scientific issues and how to communicate them to impact policy
Groups of high school students lean around tables strewn with crayons, markers and stick-figure sketches. The conversations are animated. “Ooh, I like that, but let’s draw the bacteria green and scarier” one student says. “The brain looks so real!” says another. They are drawing pictures of immune-cells fighting viruses, oil spills, forensic tools, and likening Alzheimer’s disease to a car that’s run out of gas. Complex, scientific concepts suddenly come to life.
The students came to Jefferson as part of the SummerScience@Jefferson program, to learn from faculty and student volunteers about the role of science in everyday life. Today, they are putting their knowledge to the test by breaking down complicated scientific issues into animations for a broad audience. “Many of our fellow graduate students had a difficult time with this exercise. They could learn something from you guys!” says Tess Cherlin, a graduate student volunteer and one of the teachers of this week’s activity, Science Sketches. Indeed, scientists often struggle with conveying their research – both its importance and inherent uncertainty – to the public effectively. And the consequences for society have been troubling.
A new generation of scientific thinkers and communicators
These high schoolers, members of generation Z, live in a unique moment in history. The printing press no longer determines whose voice is heard. Anyone can be a publisher, anyone can create content and build an audience of followers on social media, which have given people a microphone to talk about issues they care about. Take Greta Thunberg, who at age 15 took time off school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament for a call to action on climate change. She posted pictures of her striking on various social media platforms and her cause quickly started to draw attention. She has now built a following of over a million, and has mobilized thousands of students across the world to take part in her “School Strike for the Climate”, which took place last month. Recently, Thunberg was invited to speak to the United Nations and has begun a new campaign called “Fridays for Future”.
Social media influencers like Greta aren’t just passive consumers of their science lessons; they are using their knowledge of scientific facts, data, and statistics to make compelling arguments for change. But they understand that technical, scientific language can alienate the broader public.
The “Science Sketches” workshop in the SummerScience@Jefferson program, led by graduate students, is helping young students hone these communication skills. “If you’re not able to explain science to the general public and how it could benefit them, then there’s really no point,” says Abhi Nangunoori, rising senior at Central Bucks High School. “Because if you can’t understand something, you’re more likely to fear it or oppose it.”
As some groups of students work on their sketches, other groups go off to record their scripts. These are the stories they’ll tell in their own words about the scientific concepts their summer research projects explore. “Think of an analogy for your topic, something that everyone would come across in their daily life,” suggests Cherlin.
(Watch the video above to see high school student Nia Week’s analogy described below come to life through illustrations)
The students brainstorm together, digging deep to break down the scientific jargon into more understandable terms. “We decided to compare the immune system to a house’s security system,” explains Nia Weeks, rising senior at Masterman High School. “Each of these systems uses a particular code to tell ’good’ from ’bad.’ When the security system fails, there’s an attack.” Cherlin and the other graduate students nod, visibly impressed by the high schoolers’ ability to zoom out on scientific minutiae.
In many ways, being able to see the bigger picture has enabled generation Z to have a pulse on the intersection between science, policy, and law like never before. “I will be able to vote soon, and I want to be able to make an informed decision on who to vote for based on their policies and how science plays into them,” says Weeks. In the age of gene therapy, the mental health epidemic, and alarming changes in climate, this generation understands that they will be impacted the most by the decisions made today.
“You are never too small to make a difference” – Greta Thunberg.
Helping scientists communicate their research
As the high schoolers work on their sketches and scripts, the graduate students look on with pride and excitement. “The fact that these kids are learning the language of science now, it’s going to help no matter what they end up doing later in life. It’s not just for us as academics to be the gatekeepers of science. Everybody needs to be consciously engaging with it,” says Cherlin, who is a PhD candidate in the Genetics, Genomics, and Cancer Biology program and president of the Graduate Student Association.
“I wish I had known the importance of presenting science in an interesting away when I was their age,” says Brandie Morris, one of the workshop leaders and a PhD candidate in Neuroscience. “I think it’s something that should be built into our curriculum and training.”
Indeed, science communication and outreach is often not a priority in research environments. It’s sometimes viewed as time that could be better spent in the lab. “But as early-career scientists start applying for grants and have to convince funding agencies of the impact of their research, they’re not equipped with the skills to communicate in a clear and engaging way,” says Morris.
While there is no standardized training, many graduate schools have made efforts to encourage scientists to improve their presentation and communication skills. Initiatives like the “3-Minute Thesis” where students and postdoctoral fellows prepare TED-style 3-minute talks about their research for a lay audience, is a nation-wide competition that helps scientists tell their science story clearly and engagingly.
“As PhD students, we’re so focused on this one little aspect of science and sometimes it’s hard to pull our heads up and look at the bigger picture,” says Nicolette Heinsinger, another volunteer and PhD candidate in Neuroscience. “It was really impressive to watch the high school students be able to do that.”
Bridging the gap
Programs like SummerScience@Jefferson are giving young kids an opportunity to interact with scientists and learn about their stories, bridging the gap that so often exists between scientists and their community. “It was good to talk with researchers because you realize they’re just regular human beings,” says Abraham Kamara, rising senior at a rising senior at JR Masterman School. “Not many people get to see that side of them.”
“It made me realize that anyone can do science, you just have to be interested and motivated,” agrees Fae Lobron, rising senior at Little Flower High School for Girls.
Programs like these are so important in shifting the public’s perception that scientists are secretive and unapproachable. They also empower today’s kids to see science as a viable career path, and to feel like scientific advancement belongs to them too.
“We were very purposeful about exposing the students to different stages of a career in science – from the teaching assistants who are undergraduates (some are even alumni of the program) to graduate students, faculty and instructors. We wanted the students to be able to visualize themselves in these different roles,” says Gerald Grunwald, PhD, Dean of the College of Life Sciences, which is home to the summer program.
Scientific issues like climate change affect people of all demographics, and yet communities that are most likely to be impacted are those that have been traditionally underrepresented in the research of these issues.
“It was very important that the program was intentional in its selection of high school students from various underrepresented groups,” says La’Verne Webb, executive assistant to Dean Grunwald, and Director of Diversity and Inclusion initiatives. “I wanted the students to meet people in science who reflected an inclusive community with visible and meaningful representation of diversity, whether it was the instructors, the workshop presenters or our collaborators on and off campus.” The program does have a cost associated with it, however, through the generosity of sponsors, scholarship funds were available to students who qualify. “It’s important to give high school students equitable opportunities and let them know that they can overcome barriers to access,” says Webb.
“The world has a lot of challenges, scientific and otherwise, and one of the reasons I remain optimistic is the kids,” says Dr. Grunwald. “They give me hope for the future. We told the students, no matter where this program takes them, this way of thinking, to identify problems and find solutions, will prepare them to overcome any challenge. Our goal is to plant the seed.”