I’m working on an application. If this thing pans out I’ll be doing science outreach with kids a few times a year. In addition to the usual “describe your research” and “describe your publications”-type sections one typically finds in applications, it also included this: “Describe your research as you would to a group of 8- to 12-year-olds during an outreach program in half a page or less“.
I have to be honest: this was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever been asked to do for any application. Ever.
It meant providing enough background information, context, and content to be meaningful and descriptive, while avoiding the usual trappings of unintelligible jargon we academics so adore. Concise and jargon-free writing should be old hat for anyone who’s ever applied for any kind of funding… but c’mon, admit it: you STILL use all kinds of acronyms, technical terminology (and, yes, jargon) when you apply for those things, DON’T you? You also type single space, tweak your margins, write ridiculously long paragraphs (or don’t break the text into paragraphs at all, choosing instead to use bold and italic and underlined font to designate the start of new sections), and use the smallest font you can get away with. Amirite?
Don’t lie. You know you do.
Bottom line: you just can’t get away with that stuff when you’re talking to kids. Their eyes will glaze over and you’ll lose them in five seconds flat. (Note: this will also happen at conferences, committee meetings and grad seminars. With grownups.)
Anyways, I made multiple versions of this little half-pager, and sought the opinions of several primary school teachers to see if it was clear, kid-friendly, and interesting. I think I have something useable, but I’m going to let it rattle around in my brain for a while (i.e., drink beer and forget about it) before making a commitment and submitting a final version.
So, here’s my challenge to you: describe your research in 250 words or less with an audience of ten-year-olds in mind.
I think this is actually a pretty useful exercise, as it has broader implications for anyone doing any kind of outreach or public speaking. Whether you’re taking to kids or to non-specialist adults, jargon and lengthy, complex explanations simply won’t cut it. Instead, clear, plain language is required, and years of work have to be drilled down to a few critical points. Adding youthful attention spans to the mix means you also need to find a way to grab the audience’s attention and help them make relevant links to their own experiences. (Actually, you should try to do this for grownup audiences too. Most ten-year-olds probably have a longer attention span than I do.)
Can you manage it? Feel free to submit your attempt if you want. Even if you don’t, I do encourage you to give this a shot – you might be surprised at how difficult it can be!
cross-posted at www.thebuggeek.com