As children, when asked what my peers and I aspired to be when we grew up, the answers were generally confined to doctor, astronaut, teacher, or princess (I’m told my life goal was to be Aladdin’s Jasmine). These were the professions most salient to our young minds. Even with two scientists for parents, my answer was never physical chemist or theoretical mathematician, despite visiting my dad’s office covered top to bottom in chalky theorems on a regular basis. Although there has been some differentiation as the advent of technology has progressed at an exponential rate, the answers that children give today have not evolved as fast. That is, of course, a real shame given the breadth of scientific roles available in this day and age, but also not surprising, as fully comprehending and explaining the role of biochemical engineer or the like to a young child simply isn’t always feasible. How then, can we convey the scope of opportunity available to our future scientists in a manner that’s relatable, understandable, and interesting?
The best place to start when addressing this issue is in its most simplistic terms: what is a scientist? To do so, we must draw from concepts that are tangible to children. For example, a doctor makes you better when you are sick. An astronaut goes into space. A teacher helps you learn new things. But a scientist? There just isn’t an easy way to break that down. In the most basic sense, a scientist helps explain how the things around us work or make new things, all with the collective goal to make our lives better. This explanation is almost inevitably too abstract in a time during children’s development when their thinking is rather concrete. As such, working examples are a useful and oft-ignored tool.
Let’s start with astronauts. Children understand what they do in crude terms, but why not leverage this interest to discuss the variety of careers that make space exploration possible? The most obvious role that comes to mind is the mechanical engineers that build the rockets. A great way to sow the seeds of this concept is through Legos. The first step is to always encourage imagination. Allow children to build and break the structures that they see or come to mind. At some point though, you can insert yourself into this process by guiding their creations to look like a rocket, a plane, or even a building as a way of introducing architecture. You can then encourage them to fly their aircrafts or play with toys in their buildings as a way to connect these structures with their respective utilities. Adding noises or realistic take-offs only further reinforces these connections.
Cooking is a great way to open the discussion about chemistry. Talk to children about the obvious processes of change. For example, you can highlight that adding wet ingredients to dry ones creates a completely new substance, distinct from the two that you started with. In that moment, they have learned about chemical changes, arguably the foundation of chemistry. Put your batter in the oven or on a skillet and highlight a completely new entity, formed thanks to the input of heat. Let them eat the cake or pancakes and they will learn that this new product tastes a lot better than flour on its own, all thanks to one chemical transformation through mixing and another via a heat reaction. Contrast this with the melting of an ice cube. While the cake bakes, you can melt ice in front of your child into a glass of water, then put that same glass back into the freezer so they tangibly visualize that cold makes water into ice, and heat makes ice into water. That’s an easy contrast with a cake, which can never be turned into its respective dry and wet ingredients again. Oil and vinegar is another great, easy, and inexpensive way to present the concept of miscibility. As children age, there are many ways to transition this foundation to methods that more closely resemble those seen in labs. Mixing different (and safe) substances to make new colors or growing crystals use obvious changes to make ideas stand out. My favorite childhood experiment was growing crystals with my own mother. I remember the awe of seeing something shiny and colorful grow in a vivid detail that no doubt contributed to my lifelong love of chemistry.
These examples can go on forever. Children who love nature can learn about the environment from the changing of the seasons. Growing up in a city with street numbers, my parents or grandparents made me add each integer in the double-digit number together to build rapid mental arithmetic. Rather than high-fives, my family did (and still does) high-sevens, or high-threes. Even unpleasant experiences such as getting sick can be to demonstrate causality in biology without explicitly broaching the realm of medicine (although that would be nonetheless advisable). Ultimately, the goal of these exercises isn’t for kids to tell people they want to be mechanical engineers or chemists. It isn’t even that they have a comprehensive or even intermediate understanding of the explicit roles of these careers. Rather, my hope is for children to have a conceptual framework of science outside of medicine, a somewhat subconscious understanding, so to speak, that they can then build on at the appropriate stage in their development when presented with the right information.