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Communicating science is communicating excitement

Narmadha Devi

Narmadha Devi writes about mathematics for children in the Tamil student’s daily – Pattam’, a product of Dinamalar groups. In this article, she discusses the importance of presenting science to children in an accessible, attractive and rational manner in order to build scientific temper and enhance their interest in science as a whole.

A view of Pattam's front page (inset: Narmadha Devi)
A view of Pattam's front page (inset: Narmadha Devi) 

Communicating science in the spoken language is very important if we want science to reach people and develop scientific temper. It works great with children, even if their medium of education is English. When kids get a chance to read about science in their own language, they can absorb concepts better and develop a deep interest in science as a whole. 

Science is not an alien subject to children; they are taught a lot of it in their schools. But, does this learning process get them excited about why the things in this universe exist and behave the way they do? Does it enable them to cherish the beauty of science? The answer is often not very encouraging as most children are not excited by the science they learn at school. However, their lack of interest in pursuing science as a curriculum-based activity does not mean that children cannot be oriented towards science. 

A mind for questions

My friend told me, God created this world in 7 days’. How is it possible that such a huge world was created in just 7 days? Is it true?” A child asks their father. The father lectures the child about the Big Bang, Initial Singularity and makes an earnest attempt to rationalise the child’s thinking. The child impatiently says, Stop! My friend is far better, at least she said 7 days. You say it all happened in less than a second!” 

Here, can we brand this child as irrational or believe that they can’t be guided? For this child, a universe that got created in less than a second, on its own, may seem like an impossibility. So, they dismiss the big bang as irrational. At the same time, their analytical and rational senses find the statement that the world was created in a week’s time slightly more believable. Therefore, to the child, both theories — big bang and divine creation — appear magical or supernatural. The toughest challenge here is conveying scientific information in a form that is acceptable and palatable to children without it appearing like fiction. 

My friend’s daughter, who is in the fourth grade, came to know that I was writing and editing mathematics content for a newspaper. She asked me, Who was the first person to say that zero is a number?” I told her that it was Brahmagupta. Her next question was, At what age did he start speaking about zero?” When I told her that he was an adult at the time, she shot off her next question, If those ancient Indian mathematicians started to explore zero so late in their lives, why am I being asked to understand it starting from kindergarten?” 

Here, we have to understand why children have a problem accepting zero as a number in the first place. A child will usually try to understand a new concept by linking it with previous experience in their immediate environment. If I had four chocolates and I ate all of them, and if I were then asked how many chocolates remained with me, I would say, I don’t have any’. I would certainly not say, I have zero chocolates’”. This might be their thought process. 

So, is introducing zero or concepts that need a deeper reflection to children at such a tender age the real problem here? I would argue not. An understanding of how humans first realised that zero exists as a number in its own right and how they explored its properties could help us find ways and means to convey this to children in a manner that they find interesting and comprehensible. It is only when we fail in these approaches and teach mathematics using crude and forceful methods, do they develop a lifelong phobia towards mathematics. 

Making science accessible

A strong aversion for mathematics can also cripple the learning of other science subjects. So, how do we communicate science to this promising bunch of kids who have an inherent ability to evaluate things around them with an unconditioned mind? 

The scope is ample in various mediums, be it print or electronic media. Even high school students who may profess that they hate science enjoy reading about the exploratory works of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. They feel a thrill when they learn that some formulas developed by the late Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan over a hundred years back correlate with recent discoveries about the properties of black holes. In spite of their disaffection for science subjects, children usually regard scientists as their heroes and role models. This is something that can be exploited while teaching science.

No scientific concept is inherently impossible to understand and science can be communicated to any kind of audience. And with school children, the work actually becomes easier because they are more familiar with scientific terms than a more general audience. Of course, an adequate knowledge of the scientific topic we want to communicate is a prerequisite for good science communication. But, even someone with no expertise in any branch of science can do a good job in science communication for children, so long as they possess a readiness to learn and get excited and to pass on this excitement to children. 

Any difficult science concept can be mashed into a palatable form and conveyed to children. Even concepts like quantum mechanics or concepts that are still in the exploratory stage in the scientific world can be conveyed to a high school level student. How? Only the approach matters here. It is best to begin with the fundamentals and then walk the child, step by step, to the main concept you want to convey. A smooth flow of narration with the right examples and apt metaphors will also help achieve the goal. If you want to introduce quantum gravity to children, then begin with Newton’s basic explorations. If this may still be too advanced, then start with the motion of objects to arrive at Newton and then proceed from there. Laying the foundation is the most important step.

To aid my argument, I cite an article (written in Tamil) by R. Sivaraman of the Pie Mathematics Association, which was published in Pattam (Dinamalar student’s edition and Pattam Monday Supplement) on 20.08.2018. The article is about a research paper, Numerical ordering of numbers in honey bees’.

The original study explores whether honey bees understand the concept of zero. In his article, Sivaraman begins by describing four levels of understanding zero. Level one is understanding that zero can represent non-existence (e.g. an empty chocolate box). Level two is understanding that when an ongoing action comes to halt, the value of the action becomes zero. Level three is being able to compare zero with other numbers (it is this understanding that allows us to insert zero before one in the whole number line). Level four is understanding that zero can be used in mathematical operations, e.g. when zero is added to a number or subtracted from a number, we get the same number.

Research supports that anyone with a basic understanding of numbers can interpret the first three levels of understanding zero quite comfortably. In fact, studies show that certain vertebrates understand up to level 3, which is the same level of understanding that Howard et al’s study found in honey bees.

Here, laying an initial foundation helps hook the readers to the subject, while the step by step approach conveys the importance of the finding. We received an excellent response for this article from the readers, that included a 6th class student who said that he was happy to know that even honey bees understand zero in the same way that he understands it. 

My journey at Pattam

My formal science learning ended once I graduated from high school. Yet, I write about science and mathematics for children in the Tamil student’s daily edition – Pattam’, a product of Dinamalar groups. Pattam is published five days a week (Monday to Friday) and targets adolescents in the age group of 11 to 18 (6th to 12th grade). The children subscribe and receive the newspaper through their schools. The Monday edition also goes out to the general public as a supplement with the Dinamalar main daily edition. One-third of the content of Pattam deals with scientific topics and I want to stress here that we write in Tamil — the language that most of the children in Tamil Nadu think and express themselves in. 

There is a general notion that science can only be communicated effectively in English. However, this is a myth. It is possible to communicate science not only in classical languages like Tamil but in any language spoken in any part of the world. Finding apt translations for new scientific terms is not really a problem for the journalist/​educator; one can leave that to linguistic and scientific experts. Instead, we can work on popularising concepts and explaining scientific processes. Terms can be boldly transliterated.

In the process of editing some of the finest articles that subject matter experts send us for Pattam, I started learning scientific concepts. Before I began working with Pattam, I was not a science educator, but a social worker and development communication professional with some experience in working with children. I had always believed that the media should serve as a tool in enhancing the understanding of children about the society they live in. I had always been concerned about the (brutal) way children are taught concepts in schools. I had always felt that scientific and social concepts should be introduced to children in a more empathetic manner. 

Before I started working with maths-related content for children, my mathematical knowledge was limited to believing that natural numbers can be used to count objects and knowing a few basic arithmetic operations. I could not accept negative integers or irrational numbers when I was taught about them in school. Complex numbers were nightmares. 

But, at a later stage of my life, when I started working for Pattam, I discovered that I can easily learn mathematics and science given good resources. When I edited an article written by Dr Sivaraman about the discovery of complex numbers, I found it a phenomenal learning experience. 

Being told that the square root of ‑1 is i’ in school frustrated me to no end because I never received a good explanation of why a letter was being treated as a number. Learning where that notorious i’ came from, the fact that the search for the square root of minus 1 (‘i’) led to the discovery of complex numbers, and that numbers can also be two dimensional or in fact multi-dimensional, made me feel like an excited photon. And I think my job as a science educator is just to get more and more excited about such topics and pass on that excitement to children. And I enjoy doing it. 

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