I have spent a lot of time thinking about ways to use common daily experiences to introduce young people to a life in STEM. But in thinking about aspects of research that don’t necessarily get the glamorous hero shots in movies – budgeting, staff management, etc. – I started to recognize some opportunities to have things work the other way around. Conversations that might otherwise feel uncomfortable or intimidating could be introduced with a lower-stakes STEM thought experiment. One clear example is the concept of maintaining a budget.

My own personal introduction to budgeting came in the very visual and hands-on form of an expandable file folder. Each section was labeled – food, doctor, vacation, entertainment, Christmas, etc. – and physical dollars were placed in each week based on the budget. Instead of just getting a yes/no answer about seeing a movie, we had to check the folder. If there was not enough built up in entertainment, would you be willing to take it from somewhere else? Deplete the money left for a vacation later? Surely a movie was lower priority than food. And remember, the money in the divider was for the whole family. Cleaning out a whole divider for one person was clearly unfair to everyone else. Getting season passes for a local amusement park made sense – Unlimited access! For all of us! – but maybe it meant committing as a family to no dinners out, movies, or other social activities for the rest of the year. Being a part of that decision made it easier to say no to other things down the line. It might have been a rudimentary method for visualizing the flow of money, but it is one that served me when coordinating teams of employees and international research seasons throughout my career.

But having that kind of direct conversation about family expenses can be uncomfortable, and sometimes conversations deemed too uncomfortable just don’t happen. It’s understandable. Perhaps it is easier to open the door to thinking about budgeting in the context of awesome scientific discoveries. How much would it cost for a pair of scientists to spend eight weeks in the Atacama Desert studying earthquake deformation? What about conducting a survey across prison populations in 12 states? If you had to plan the expenses for the development and testing of a new vaccine, how would you start? Imagining yourself as a scientist can be about more than the moment of discovery, even starting a conversation about what goes into planning for, spending, and tracking the budget for something like a trip to the ocean floor. Consider the simple examples below:

Planning a Budget: Imagine that a mine in a foreign country just leaked a toxic substance into the nearby water supply, and you happen to be an expert on that particular substance. You need to make a plan for how you would get the data and samples you need. Even without coming up with a single dollar amount, your budding scientist can come up with the surprisingly in-depth list of questions they would need to answer to plan such an endeavor. For example:

  • If you are an expert on the toxic substance, who else would you need to bring with you on the research team?
  • Where would you stay near the location? Tents? Hotels?
  • What will the weather be like?
  • How would you get around? Is the terrain dangerous enough that you would need to hire a professional guide or driver?
  • What protection does your team need from the toxic substance?
  • How will you decide where to go to collect samples and take measurements? Satellite imagery? Maps? Surveying local residents?
  • Are there fees to enter the country? Do you and your team need to get visas?
  • What are the rules for bringing equipment into the country? Will you need to buy it there?
  • What are the rules for taking samples out of the country? Do you need to mail them? What permits will you need?
  • Where will the samples be tested? By whom?
  • How many samples will you need from each location? How many collection kits will you need?
  • What other information will you need to collect from each site besides the samples? Does that take specialized equipment?
  • Will the other members of your team need training to deal with the toxic substance?
  • What will you eat? Where will you get food? How will you store or prepare it?

Walking through the mental effort of planning such a trip can open a conversation about planning a family vacation or the school play. Researchers have to be able to make educated estimates of how much everything will cost to apply for funding for their research, and being able to think through all the details and see where the costs might come from may be an eye-opening experience for kids who usually only think about the discovery stage of science.

Spending a Budget: Once you make your best estimate of costs and write a grant proposal, you have a lot of decisions still left to make if the grant is funded. This time your young researcher can imagine they are part of a team that is designing a new unfolding mechanism to be used on a deep-space probe. The instrument needs to be able to unfold for a measurement and then refold while in zero gravity. The team has five possible designs and $1 million to spend. That seems like a lot, but testing in zero gravity is very hard. There are some tests in the lab that are not very accurate, but they only cost $500 each to run and can happen any time. There are tests that can happen up in “near space,” but they cost $10,000 each and can only happen once per month. And you have a chance to have one design tested by the crew outside the International Space Station, but getting it there will cost $75,000 and the test can only happen 7 months from now. Your instrument needs to be ready in 1 year. How do you spend your money?

Like most budgeting in life, there are no right answers. But there are the answers that you can comfortably defend and will lead towards your future goal on the timeline you need to meet it. Perhaps navigating a strict budget for their hypothetical testing of a new earthquake-proof building can open the door to conversations about other budgets.

Tracking Spending: Once you have a plan, a budget, and at least a sense of how you will spend money, there is the added task of tracking what you spend. Organizations like the National Institute of Health, NASA, and the National Science Foundation want to be sure that the money they have provided is being spent on the proposed research. That means keeping good records of the money as it is spent, making sure everyone is staying on track, and having documentation of where the money went. But sometimes there are situations when maintaining those records takes planning, effort, and problem-solving skills. How would your young researcher handle the following?

  • You are part of a team of five people, but you are sharing the budget over the next year. How often will you check in? How will you have each member of the team keep track of their spending and report it back to you?
  • You are doing work in an area that needs a local driver, but they don’t provide receipts for their services. How will you keep a record of this expense?
  • Your team is doing work in countries with different currencies over the next 6 months. How will you keep track of what is being spent? How often will you ask for records?
  • Shipping samples internationally ended up being much more expensive than anticipated. It happened in the third month of an 18-month grant, but you didn’t receive the receipt until month 9. What do you say to your team?

Giving young researchers a chance to plan out involved, hypothetical research lets them deal with the frustration of having a monkey wrench thrown into those carefully laid plans. It isn’t the most glamourous part of a life in STEM, but it is one that your young researcher will face as they grow up – regardless of whether they become an engineer, stage manager, or stay-at-home dad. And opening the conversation in the hypothetical realm of deep-space research might make it easier to follow up when there is a discussion about ordering dessert.