Learning about Science by Participating, At Home
New opportunities emerging for families to engage in and with science
It’s Saturday morning. I can hear cartoons on in the background as a mother warmly invites me into her kitchen to chat with her children about doing nice things for other people. I haven’t physically crossed the threshold into this family’s home, but I am right there with them, asking the children to tell me about people in their lives and point to circles and faces on their computer screen. Working remotely with children is a new frontier for many developmental psychologists — one spurred by the ongoing pandemic and one that offers unique learning opportunities for parents and children alike.
As many parents continue to grapple with turning corners and rugs into classrooms, many are looking for ways to help their children learn about science while supporting it at the same time. At Children Helping Science, a site dedicated to connecting families with researchers, parents can learn more about studies for children their child’s age and decide whether to contact researchers about specific studies that interest them.
In many cases, compensation is provided (e.g., Amazon e-gift cards). Heather Kappes, parent of two, notes that this type of arrangement offers “a kind of early introduction to working for the things you want.” Kappes adds that, “Because with most online studies you have an appointment and you’re actually talking to a person, it feels more like an event, which helps break up the day.” This latter point may be especially relevant for parents who sense that their children are having difficulty navigating their more loosely-structured days.
Though there has been a massive increase in the number of online studies available for children, this certainly isn’t a new arrangement for every researcher. Dr. Majorie Rhodes (NYU) and Dr. Sarah-Jane Leslie (Princeton) direct the PANDA Lab, an online lab dedicated to understanding child development. Dr. Michael Rizzo, a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the PANDA Lab shares, “I’m blown away by our participants’ candor during the studies…it’s always a joy to hear the otherwise internal musings of children as they ponder over the response options.” His reflection highlights a benefit for parents. It can be hard to know what to ask children to understand their ideas about complex topics (e.g., germs, immigration). As flies on the walls during these studies, parents may come to better understand how their children see the world and make sense of it, which in turn, may spark ideas for future conversations and allow for connections to be made to real world events. And PANDA Lab isn’t alone in their effort. Other well-established virtual labs include: MIT’s Lookit child lab and The Child Lab at Yale.
If not interested in participating in research, there are still opportunities to engage with scientists! The Skype a Scientist program offers families the opportunity to connect with scientists to discuss things that interest their children. Though the labs above center on child development, scientists signed up with the Skype a Scientist program range from biologists to engineers to even paleontologists. Engaging with this program offers a wonderful opportunity to bring science into the home and complement lessons children complete as a part of their schooling.
Don’t have time to arrange a one-on-one session with a scientist? No problem! I Am A Scientist offers toolkits spotlighting scientists across a range of disciplines, walking through their career paths and offering additional teaching resources to get kids excited about different forms of science. Importantly, across all these opportunities, children can see that science covers a broad range of disciplines, reflecting the diversity of the scientists themselves.
In short, engaging with science by participating in research or having conversations with scientists offers unique learning opportunities for parents and children — and these opportunities are literally at parents’ fingertips. At the same time, it is important to recognize that taking advantage of these opportunities typically requires access to some type of computer, stable internet, and even parental involvement. With that in mind, many researchers are working to make these opportunities more accessible (see this paper by Dr. Stella Lourenco and Dr. Arber Tasimi of Emory University). For now, parents should feel comfortable signing up for these opportunities and sharing any considerations that would like the researchers to make to accommodate their family and facilitate their children’s learning and science experience.
To get the most out of your research participation, here are some questions that you may consider asking researchers after your child has completed a study: 1) What is already known about this topic? 2) What are your hypotheses? 3) What did you learn from my child today? 4) Where can I find more information about this type of work? 5) Do you know of any children’s books on this topic? 6) Will you be sharing the results of this study with participating families? 7) Why did you decide to be a scientist?