At Yale’s West Campus, a youth movement in science communication

Monday, April 3, 2023

“Science isn’t just about white coats and pipets in labs,” says Dave Hiller.

The Yale research scientist is on a mission to make the subject more appealing to young people - and so far, the data suggests it’s working.

Hiller is one of a clutch of scholars at the University’s West Campus who recently published research findings in the journal Frontiers for Young Minds. Frontiers is the 3rd most-cited and 6th largest research publisher and open science platform. The kid-friendly journal aims to make science discoveries available to younger audiences by inviting young people to shape articles that are both accurate and exciting.

The benefits are being felt by children themselves but also in positioning science as a more digestible public good, explains Hiller, whose lab has published twice in the journal.

For starters, more people are reading about their science. “Our first paper already has over 13,000 views, and the average for the journal is over 18,000,” he says. That’s thousands more than the typical reach through the traditional research literature.

Hiller and his co-authors Lori Tausta and Alysha Auslender are members of the Strobel Lab at the Yale Institute for Biomolecular Design & Discovery. Their latest publication, Fluoride: Good in Toothpaste, Bad for Plants, explores how plants defend against high levels of fluoride that they could encounter in their environment.

The work sits next to some impressive company. Frontiers for Young Minds recently published a second volume of unique articles by Nobel Prize winners, written specifically for young readers.

Submitting an article to the journal draws similarities from the traditional scientific peer review process, but with key differences. The journal’s editors assign manuscripts to ‘young minds’ from middle schools across the country, pairing them with subject matter ‘science mentors’ to produce a review report. Article authors are then obliged to respond to feedback point by point.

And there’s no limit to what the kids can change. Text, figures, and scientific jargon are all fair game.

“The kids aren’t incumbered by the science process and can really speak their minds about what makes sense to them,” says Josie Jayworth, a chemistry graduate student at the Energy Sciences Institute who joined forces with Hiller on student-focused outreach.

As part of the Open Labs program at Yale, Jayworth worked with Rick Crouse (Yale Pathways to Science) and her peers to enlist New Haven middle school students as young mind reviewers, organizing meetings of upwards of 20 students at a time to scrutinize submissions sent by the Frontiers journal.

“Working alongside kids we’re all learning about how to be better communicators,” continues Jayworth. “Often, when I tell people that I do chemistry, they assume it must be very complicated, but I want people to understand what science is.”

Being able to explain science has multiple benefits, particularly at the interdisciplinary landscape of Yale’s West Campus.

“Even in our conversations at the Energy Sciences Institute, we might be talking to chemical engineers, applied physicists, or inorganic chemists, and we have to rely on an interpreter!”

Being able to talk the same language is growing in importance for Yale collaborators hungry to leverage the knowledge of their lab neighbors in pursuit of new discoveries.

Outreach events also remain a great way to engage the community in science conversation, says Jayworth, but inviting kids to be active participants in the creation of scientific articles (the young reviewers are formally acknowledged in Frontiers for Young Minds’ publications) is building powerful agency.

Making science more appealing to a new generation, opening the door for more kids to get involved, is fulfilling Hiller’s aim. “By participating as peer reviewers, the kids’ perspectives are making science more digestible, but in turn they are being drawn closer to science itself,” he says.

And again, the evidence suggests that kids who read more digestible science are more likely to look at the ‘adult’ research articles.

“Science doesn’t end when our experiments end,” stresses Hiller. “We all need to know how to communicate what we do.”

At a time when scientific information is increasingly at the center of public discourse, being able to communicate effectively to non-scientist audiences builds support for science. According to Scientific American, talking the same language about science promotes wider relevance to society, and encourages more informed decision-making at all levels.

It can also make science accessible to audiences traditionally excluded from the process, effectively making science more diverse and inclusive. Not surprisingly, such broader benefits are increasingly recognized as important responsibilities by mainstream organizations like the National Science Foundation.

Not that science is always serious.

“It’s super fun to work with kids,” beams Hiller. “If you think feedback from anonymous scientists is tough, wait until you get cut to the bone by a 13-year-old!” But even here there’s an upside, because kids are learning how to give constructive criticism as part of the Open Labs review events.

Hiller says he found out about the opportunity to publish in Frontiers for Young Minds from a colleague and thinks others should give it a try. “Yale has a lot of great research that would fit well in this format. The whole thing is a positive experience.”

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By Jon Atherton