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Science Communication for a Young Audience – My Internship Experience

With the pandemic forcing kids to stay home from school, parents have been looking for activities to keep them occupied. What better way to engage kids than to get them learning about nature! Almost every kid has had access to the outdoors during the pandemic and they don’t need to interact with anyone helping to limit the spread of Covid. The Prairie Ridge Ecostation takes this to a new level with an engaging Citizen Science Project for kids!

At Prairie Ridge Ecostation, which is run through the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC, a program called EcoExplore was brought to Central North Carolina helping kids grow their knowledge of the natural world around them. This program was brought to our area from the NC Arboretum long before the start of the pandemic, but they have adapted to provide important resources for kids stuck at home. Originally, EcoExplore events were held at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation but they have since been able to move to the online platform Zoom to host programs. EcoExplore is not only a series of fun programs, but also a whole incentive-based citizen science project. The kids can earn badges such as “Botany Badge” or “Ornithology Badge”. If they earn enough badges and attend enough programs, they can earn prizes and attend a fun party held once a year.

Taking a Photo in the Woods - Science Communication for a Young Audience - My Internship Experience -Forestry and Environmental Resources NC State University
Prairie Ridge Ecostation Intern, Amanda McLamb, takes photos of vegetation for EcoExplore Botany Badge kids’ program.

As an intern at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation, I have been able to work with other museums across North Carolina to help design and implement educational programs geared towards kids. We have designed programs ranging from simple bird identification to plants having superpowers! I also had the opportunity to create a video series on invasive species in our area for the EcoExplore Central NC Facebook page. Through this personal project I was able to learn many skills like video filming and editing but I think the most important would-be science communication. The EcoExplore audience generally ranges from kindergarten to 6th grade. Having only communicated science to a scientific audience for the past 4 years, this was a learning curve for me. There was no way I could explain a topic like “the complex evolution of stomata cells in plants” to a 1st grader and have them actually learn anything. I learned that first I would need to check Wake County science standards for first graders to see what they have already learned. From there I would need to choose words carefully to make sure they would understand what I was talking about. I learned that analogies were important to helping the kids stay engaged. For example, we wanted to do a program on cool plant adaptions (like how Longleaf pines need fire for their seeds to grow) but to make it interesting for young kids my colleague analogized with the plant adaption with “Super powers”. The Longleaf pine was now a superhero who was fire proof.

Lastly, I also learned that including activities for the kids to reinforce what they had just learned was very important. For example, I attended a program developed by a colleague of mine that was presented to a K-5 audience. The program was held on Zoom and was just a general “Getting to know more about Birds” type program. It was so fun to see young kids just staring up at their screen entranced by the different bird calls and pictures. At one point, the presenter asked the audience to draw their own bird. All the kids got out their crayons and started scribbling on paper off screen. After about 5 minutes they all got to hold up their drawings and show everyone their beautiful bird drawings. It was so sweet to see how engaged they were with the program and how proud they were of their bird drawings. I noticed that this helped the presenter know they were following along and allowed to children to reinforce what they had just learned about birds.

Going in to this internship, my main goal was to learn how to bridge science and the public. Interning at Prairie Ridge and helping with the EcoExplore program I learned that engaging with the public is easier than it seems. The younger generation is very engaged and even excited to learn about natural sciences! I learned appropriate ways to communicate science to a non-scientific audience and I learned technical skill that will help me in the future. I have determined my career path will include community engagement with natural sciences in some capacity or another. It is just so exciting to see people learning and interested about one of my top passions!

Written by: Amanda McLamb