“If I had to give advice to a scientists trying to write a Young Minds article… I guess it would be not to be afraid of the complicated parts. I mean, explain them well, but don’t get rid of them completely. I like that it’s complicated. That’s what makes it so interesting.” -Krishna, age 10
Earlier this month Frontiers for Young Minds hosted its first live review event at the Chabot Space and Science Center as part of the Bay Area Science Festival – asking researchers to present their work for a young public and facing the questions of a panel of our Young Reviewers.
Leading up to event, we interviewed each of our five Young Reviewers as well as our authors and Chief Editor. It was clear that all parties were nervous – the Young Reviewers about asking questions in front of an audience and the authors about the nature of the questions they would be asked.
Across all five Young Reviewers, two girls and three boys between the ages of 9-17, there was a clear and common plea: Don’t underestimate us.
Their involvement with the journal and their enthusiasm for its content was clearly connected to the higher level of material that they were able to encounter. As a group they felt that the introduction to new methods, new knowledge, and new types of problems were some of the most rewarding aspects of reading a Young Minds article.
This came as an interesting counterpoint to the concerns of the authors, who felt their greatest potential downfall would be to make the material too complicated. Complex ideas can be explained using clear and simple language, but it can be difficult to think about the two separately. The authors knew that too often it is the science that gets simplified instead of the language.
“I think we underestimate how much kids seek new information,” said Chief Editor and UC Berkeley Professor Bob Knight.
Each of the five Young Reviewers had read the submitted Young Minds manuscripts before the event and prepared some questions. During the review, the authors were asked to explain their research in a 5-minute presentation targeted for their young crowd. After each presentation, the panel of Young Reviewers posed their questions.
Before the event, I asked one author what kinds of questions she thought she might receive. She responded that she was hoping for very fundamental ones. She said that most of the time researchers are not able to talk about their research at their broadest, most applied context. Questions at an event like this can help to push their thoughts as they apply out into the rest of the world. On that note, the Young Reviewers certainly delivered.
When authors presented their recent research on creating a device that would read the brain signals of severely paralyzed individuals to decode and turn into speech using an external speaker, Wyatt, age 9, was concerned about whether this device could be turned on and off by the user. His concern was that someone could end up in embarrassing situations in which the device commented on the appearances of everyone around them.
Bhargavi, age 15, wanted to know what the equivalent brain signals would be for people who are deaf, and whether reversing the process would make it possible to activate the appropriate brain areas for deaf people to hear.
The authors seemed pleasantly surprised by the questions, and acknowledged that both were significant considerations in their research. One as a consideration for the current work, and one for the broader and more long-term implications of understanding the brain in this way. Even though these aspects were not mentioned in the manuscripts, the Young Reviewers had picked them out as important lines of inquiry.
When it came to the presentation about Deep Brain Stimulation, Darius, age 12, had more specific questions about the technical aspects of the amount and type of electricity used. After a small consultation between the co-authors, one came to the microphone to communicate what is an infrequently communicated reality about doing research.
“When you become a scientist, you have to learn a lot of things. And sometimes,” the author said, “if a long time has passed from when you learned that particular thing, you forget the exact details. In this case, I would need to ask our engineer or look it up.”
Though the audience laughed, but it was in recognition that this was an experience everyone in the room could relate to.
As the evening progressed, the Young Reviewers and authors became more comfortable. With the help of host for the evening – neuroscientist, opera singer, and science communicator Dr. Indre Viskontas – the conversation became more relaxed and the explanations took shape in language more suitable for its target audience.
The level of jargon – not the complexity of the ideas – once again presented the greatest hold up. In a particularly poignant moment, the host posed a question to the Young Reviewers about the criteria they used to decide whether a Young Minds article should be published for their peers. One of the youngest reviewers took the microphone and asked, “What’s a criteria?”
After the event the Young Reviewers and their parents had a chance to chat more informally with the authors. Compared to the raw nerves on display before the event, the conversations were comfortable and interspersed with laughter all around.
While many people acknowledge that science outreach and communication are important goals, there can be concerns about getting people to put in the effort. Traditionally we only think of the effort on the side of the researchers, and the time they have to take out of their professional lives for such activities. When asked why she participates, one author said she felt that events like this provide her with a renewed enthusiasm for her own work, and help her to remember why what researchers do every day is actually so cool.
Less often we ask about the effort from the other side. Thanks to Dr. Viskontas, this was actually the last thought of the evening before the event ended. She asked the young panel why they had decided, with so many other options available, to spend their time reviewing scientific articles written for kids.
Abby, one of the original reviewers for the journal and now age 17, took the lead. “Because it’s important to make this information available for other kids. Because I know, with the time I am putting in, I am getting to help people. I am getting to learn something new, yes, but I am also getting to help people who come after me. And that is always a good way to spend your time.”
Frontiers for Young Minds would like to thank the many people and organizations who made this event possible, including: The Frontiers Research Foundation, The Jacobs Foundation of Zurich, the Bay Area Science Festival, Chabot Space and Science Center, Swissnex, the Young Minds Team, chief editors, authors, science mentors, parents, and young reviewers. We would also like to thank the generous donation in the names of Judah Carrillo and Golden Freedman, which made the event free for all attendees.