February 28, 2020 // Written for Nieman Storyboard by Claire Hassler
Janica Johnson flipped her reporter’s notebook open to an empty page as she and her team prepared for an interview with Donna Shows, a cell biologist from the Benaroya Research Institute. They had specific questions in mind about the coronavirus.
Not a surprising topic for a science reporter these days. What might surprise is that Janica and her reporting partner, Sophia Leblang, are both 10 years old.
Janica and Sophia were among as many as 300 kids who stepped up — and plunked down — to interview scientists during Family Science Days at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2020 Annual Meeting earlier this month in Seattle. The hands-on-the-notebook program is in its fifth year, run by Science Storytellers, a non-profit that connects “kids and scientists through conversation and storytelling.”
During the interviews, the kids are encouraged to ask the questions they really want answered. Like when Saira Scheel, 6, got straight to the point with Arlyne Simon, a biomedical engineer and children’s book author.
“I love dragons,” Saira said. “Do you love dragons?”
“I love dragons too,” Simon responded.
Source and reporter then riffed on different animals while Saira took notes (drew) in her notebook:
“A tiger, a lion, a giraffe, a slug, a snail, a dragon, a dinosaur!” Saira said. “Oh! A octopus and a squid, an eagle, a fish, a hamster, a rat.”
Each animal got a name: Leo the Lion. Wanda the Whale.
“We had Snowwwy th Snail, S-N-O-W-W-W-Y to emphasize how slow he was,” Simon said. later.
What scientists learn from being interviewed
On the flip side, the interviews give the scientists practice explaining their research without complicated jargon — and challenges them to be interesting.
“Kids will tell you the truth,” said Siri Carpenter, a PhD scientist who is co-founder of a science-based journalism website and editor of The Craft of Science Writing. “If they’re bored, they might stand up and just walk away.”
That’s what Shows, the cell biologist, discovered when trying to explain coronavirus. Janica said her aunt is Canada is worried about neighbors traveling to and from China: “She’s staying in her condo a lot.”
So Shows asked the girls if they’ve ever had a sibling who is super-sick with the flu, while they only have a slight cough. And while scientists are still racing to understand the virus and find a vaccine, she used the flu example to explain that the effects of the virus vary from person to person.
“These conversations still give me jitters,” Shows said. “But there’s got to be more people out here who talk, especially to kids, in a way that makes them understand that they’re just as human, responsible, intelligent and important as anybody who’s got their hands on the wheel…. It was very cool to be able to translate complicated, invisible things in a way that had them asking more questions in a really rational form,” Shows said.
The origins of Science Storytellers
As many as 40 scientists now volunteer to be interviewed at the Storytellers’ booth each year. The curious kids who show up are anywhere from 4 to 17 years old.
“You have to be able to pivot and speak in a different way for all those different audiences,” says Jennifer Cutraro, founder of Science Storytellers.
Cutraro has a background in freelance journalism and education publishing. She was frustrated by the grumbling she hear at science conferences about the lack of public engagement with science. She also felt there was value in the way journalists explore, digest and disseminate information — a model she thinks could be of greater use in education.
“You really learn a lot by interviewing somebody and working on a story,” Cutraro says. “I would love to someday see curriculum in everything taught through the lens of journalism.”
Science Storytellers hosted its first booth at the AAAS Family Science Days in 2016, and has since expanded to other science-based events and sponsors. It partners with The Open Notebook, a website focused on the craft of science-related journalism, and receives funding from Burroughs Welcome Fund.
“Every year I am just amazed at the astute questions that kids ask and the ways that scientists are able to engage with those kids,” says Carpenter of The Open Notebook. “Our mission is to help science writers improve their skills, and there’s nothing saying that those science writers have to be adults.”
At the recent Science Storytellers both, Carpenter invited young people to talk to a scientist. Then she’d hand them a Science Storytellers starter-pack: a classic reporter’s notebook, a pen, a few sample questions they could ask if they felt shy or stuck, and a Story Starter worksheet to fill out at the end, where they could capture the key points of the discussion.
“This is a reporter’s notebook,” Carpenter explained. “It’s a funny shape, isn’t it? The reason it’s like that is because reporters like to hold these notebooks in one hand, while they can write with the other one.”
Carpenter introduced the child to a volunteer scientist. Reporter and source would sit face-to-face in chairs or on the floor and jump in, guided by the interviewer’s curiosity.
The children are “future adults who are going to be voting and buying and making health decisions,” Carpenter says. “They have the capacity and oftentimes the creativity to help advance science themselves, and they deserve to be in a position to ask questions about science and contribute their own ideas.”
Sometimes the talk focused on the scientist’s specialty. Other times the conversation was completely random. The young reporters got to know scientists as regular people with hobbies, who make jokes, and who sometimes make mistakes — an honesty that highlighted scientists’ excitement about their work. That’s how Guillaume Riesen, a neuroscience doctoral student at Stanford University, felt when after explaining dark matter to an 8-year-old.
“He totally got it!”