When I get emails from listeners of Tumble, the science podcast for kids I produce and cohost, they often reveal how kids are inspired by the scientists we feature on the show. For example, we’ve heard how an episode featuring a salamander scientist turned a family hike into a hunt for amphibians in every stream. And after listening to an episode about a biologist who studies plants and insects, one girl drew herself holding a microscope up to a butterfly, with the caption, “I am a bug scientist.”
Responses like these are partly why I started Tumble. In each episode, I interview a scientist about their research and weave their voice into a story that illuminates larger themes of how the scientific process works. Featuring scientists highlights how science is a human process, filled with challenges but driven by curiosity and wonder.
Including real, working scientists also teaches kids more about who scientists are—how they think and what they look (and sound) like. This is especially important as studies suggest that attitudes and biases about science and who scientists are begin in childhood. For example, from an early age children associate men with math and perceive men as being better at science than women, according to a recent report exploring the representation of female STEM characters in media.
After five years, I’ve interviewed around a hundred scientists for Tumble, and in most cases they are excited when I tell them the audience is kids. Researchers know how important it is to communicate to children and teens. But they’re often intimidated by the idea of speaking on a completely different level. It’s the science writer’s job to help them—first by making sure they’re the right fit for the story, and then by helping them craft their message for kids and encouraging them to let their curiosity and passion for science shine through. The result should be engaging science storytelling that treats kids as the intelligent and curious people they are.
Searching for the Right Scientist
The first step is tracking down the right scientist to interview. In doing so, journalists should think about their specific story and medium. Most scientists should be capable of providing a few good quotes for a short written article. But if you plan to ask the scientist to do more heavy lifting in the storytelling, such as featuring them on screen or on a podcast, you’ll want to find someone who’s eager to communicate with kids.
For example, each episode of the public television show SciGirls tells the story of a different group of girls working with a female scientist or engineer, whom they call a mentor, to tackle a challenge like solving mysteries with forensic science. The success of an episode relies heavily on the mentor’s chemistry with the girls. “In general, we select mentors who have a genuine passion for their work and curiosity that comes through in their interactions with others,” says SciGirls producer Marie Domingo.
The producers often use the show’s connections to science outreach organizations to find women who have direct experience working with kids. SciGirls series producer Angie Pringle explains, “We’re looking for folks who are great communicators, who are trained or skilled at being able to talk on all levels about the work that they do.”
For Tumble, I also seek out scientists who have a track record of public outreach and science communication. I start with a quick Google search for videos or podcasts to hear how a potential guest talks—the language they use and how they express themselves. If they have an active Twitter account and are involved in the #scicomm community, that’s a good sign, too. It tells me they’re excited to communicate their work and they’re thoughtful about how they do it. (It also means they might be more likely to respond to my emails.)
Sy Montgomery, author and creator of the children’s book series Scientists in the Field, says she’s featured scientists she’s met at conferences and through a network of other scientists she’s enjoyed working with. Scientists in the Field features first-hand accounts of scientists on research expeditions. The ideal scientist subject, Montgomery says, is “sparkly,” meaning charismatic and respectful of kids.
Once you identify a good candidate, it’s important to make sure they’re on board with the time commitment and resources a project will require. For example, each Scientists in the Field book involves Montgomery following a scientist for ten days to two weeks on a field expedition. “By the time I’m talking to them on the phone, I’m already sold,” Montgomery says. “What I need to find out is whether they are willing to give us the time and access that we need.” Taking part in a SciGirls episode is similarly intensive. Filming takes almost a full week, with around 25 hours of footage.
For shorter time commitments, a preinterview can help prepare scientists and establish a rapport. Anna Rothschild, creator and host of the kids’ video series Science Magic Show Hooray from The Washington Post, says she makes a habit of preinterviewing scientists over the phone. “That puts the people at ease, and makes them more confident going into the filmed interview,” she says. “I think more than it being for kids, people are more concerned about being on camera.”
I preinterview scientists for Tumble only if I’m going to visit them at work, to find out what I’ll be able to see and record. I’ll also offer to talk beforehand if the scientist has a lot of questions about how the interview will work. But I try not to let them tell me too much about their work itself—I want to be able to record their enthusiasm when they tell me what they do for the first time.
Hitting the Right Level
During the actual interview, it’s the journalist’s job to help scientists target their message for kids. The right language can make any topic approachable, no matter how complex. “Just because a kid hasn’t learned about genetics in school, doesn’t mean that you can’t tell a story that has something to do with genes,” says Rothschild. “You need to find the right language to be able to explain it.”
Also, keep in mind that science media for kids is often tailored to specific age groups, each with their own level of comprehension, language, and experience. Most first graders won’t be reading the same article as a sixth grader, and most sixth graders won’t be reading the same article as a ninth grader. And kids can sense when something is targeted above or below their grade level, which can lead to frustration or boredom.
So how do you get a scientist to aim for the right mark? Use the golden question: “How would you explain this to a ___ year old?” Putting a picture of your audience in their mind will help bring scientists down to the level you actually need. (It’s the same technique as the adult version: “How would you explain this to someone at a bar?”)
Tell scientists in advance that you’re going to ask them to adjust their language, says Mara Grunbaum, freelance science writer and former editor for SuperScience, a magazine from Scholastic. “I tell them, this is for this specific age group. I might ask questions that are super basic,” she says.
For example, Grunbaum says she helps scientists break down complex concepts by asking, “How would you describe this to someone who’s never seen this before?” Even if your audience is already familiar with an idea, she says, the response will be a much more descriptive quote.
As scientists explain their work, watch out for jargon—a major landmine of interviewing scientists for kids’ stories. It’s your job to spot words that are overly technical and get the experts to rephrase when necessary. “I usually let scientists talk and use language that they would normally use, and complete their sentence,” Rothschild says. Then she stops them and asks them to express the same idea using less technical language. “Once they’ve done their spiel with jargon, it becomes easier to do it with simpler words,” she says.
For specific words that might be important to the story, Rothschild often suggests an alternative term, such as “brain scan” instead of fMRI.
If your format allows for it, featuring kids themselves can also help keep scientists on the right level. Plus, kids love to see themselves in their media. Many episodes of Tumble start with kids’ questions, as does Science Magic Show Hooray. Not only do kids’ questions tend to lead to great stories, but they also give scientists a more concrete idea of the audience. I often send scientists the child’s recording of their question before the interview.
The producers of SciGirls avoid formal interviews altogether by creating genuine interactions between girls and their mentors. “It’s sort of like, ‘Here’s this cool big sister,’” says Pringle. If a scientist defaults to a teacher role and begins to lecture, the producers intervene and encourage the girls to take the lead.
Beyond finding the right language to use, it’s up to the journalist to help scientists show who they are as people and what drives their work. With the right questions, you can create characters who will inspire kids to learn.
The most important thing to accomplish in an interview is to get a scientist to communicate their curiosity and passion for science. It’s what connects to a child’s own curiosity and wonder. Here are two questions that can get scientists talking about what inspires them:
- How did you get interested in being a scientist?
- What keeps you excited about and engaged in your work?
Bringing out scientists’ emotions also makes them more relatable and sparks kids’ interest. Montgomery says she waits for the moments when scientists show more of who they are and how they react to challenges. “A quote that shows a little bit of what their voice sounds like and their personality, that’s what I’m going to use,” she says. “Something that has immediacy or disappointment in it—some emotion.” Here are some questions that can help evoke emotion during interviews:
- How did you feel when that happened?
- What surprised you?
- What kinds of challenges did you face?
It may even help to think and act like a kid (within reason) when you’re interviewing scientists for kids’ media, says Rothschild, who appears on-screen alongside scientists in Science Magic Show Hooray. “I try to bring enthusiasm to what I do,” she says. “I try to mimic the sort of behavior I want my audience to come away from the video with.” Phrasing questions like these with a childlike enthusiasm can inject energy into an interview:
- That’s so cool! Can you tell me more about that?
- That blows my mind! How is that possible?
Even if you’re not in the story, playing the kid role also helps keep a scientist talking on the right level. “I have this urge to let them know that I’m smart, and I know what they’re talking about,” Grunbaum says. “It’s counterproductive at the beginning of the interview. Don’t be afraid to ask silly, basic-sounding questions.”
When it comes down to it, interviewing scientists for kids is not wildly different from interviewing for an adult audience. But the most important message to capture and communicate is the scientist’s curiosity and enthusiasm for their work. That’s the hook. Making engaging science media for kids is an important job, and it can be really fun, too. “A little part of me is like, don’t tell everybody that writing for kids is secretly the best, because they’ll all want to do it,” Grunbaum says. “And we get to use exclamation points, which is really great!”
Lindsay Patterson is the creator, producer, and cohost of Tumble, a science podcast for kids. Her work has also appeared on NPR.org, Slate, McSweeney’s The Organist, and many other outlets. She is a cofounder of Kids Listen, an organization advocating for high-quality podcasts for kids. Follow her on Twitter at @_lindsayp and @tumblecast.