Keith and Laura show kids and parents native and non-native "critters"

Keith and Laura show kids and parents native and non-native “critters”

(Or, how some Velcro, crayons, and enthusiasm can go a long way to engage kids in science).

Like many ecologists (and ecologists-in-training), members of the Olden Lab spend a good deal of time dissecting complex ideas in ecology and statistics. Although the work is exciting and rewarding in its own right, we also have felt a desire and responsibility to use our findings to help inspire and teach the next generation of learners – and the taxpayers that often help fund our work! Enter events like Paws-On Science (April 5-7, 2013, at The Pacific Science Center in Seattle), the University of Washington (UW) and Pacific Science Center’s annual outreach event during which labs from all over the UW present their work to the public with hands-on activities.

As a lab, we developed activities to teach kids (and adults!) the importance of freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers, as well as the dangers of the invasive species we study. We created a life-cycle matching game, a food web puzzle, and an invasive species coloring book.We also had native and non-native live aquatic animals on display in aquaria. We aimed for a range of activities that appealed not only to young children but also their older siblings and parents.

This year alone, Paws-On Science hosted several thousand children over the weekend. While we are thrilled to have reached a diverse and expansive audience over the weekend, there is sometimes a forgotten part of outreach activities, which is how these types of events also benefit the graduate student scientists who participate. Here are some of our thoughts on not only what we taught but also what we learned:

Lake food web puzzle

Lake food web puzzle

Lauren: “I developed one of the activities, and then volunteered for some shifts over the weekend. Putting together the live animal tanks and ‘observer skills’ activity took some time and involved some trial and error, but I really learned the difference between just delivering information and creating something that truly engaged kids and got them asking more questions. Talking with parents was very rewarding, too – getting to answer what seemed like a million questions about invasive species over a whole weekend really helped show me what knowledge I have gained, and also what I still need to learn.”

Dave:  “I volunteered to staff our exhibit on Sunday.  I found the experience really gratifying.  Watching kids scan the live tanks to find the animals therein and seeing their enthusiasm to complete our ‘observer skills’ task reminded me of how excited I got about all things aquatic when I was that age (a long, long time ago!).  I found myself talking all manner of science with the parents who stopped by as well, and found them as engaged in the science as their kids were the activities.  Overall it was good re-enforcement for me of the need to participate in these types of events, both to inspire and to be inspired by our visitors”.

Laura: “This was my second year participating in Paws-On Science, but the first time I had developed hands-on-activities. I designed and built a food web puzzle that used Washington lakes as a model food web. It was a challenge to come up with an appropriate activity for the age levels that we were targeting: elementary and middle school children. I also crafted a message that would help me relate the theme of our exhibit and my activity, in particular, to a broader message about people’s role in the environment. This helped me engage children, as well as parents, in conversations beyond the hands-on activities to think about how we transform our local environments by introducing non-native species. The conversations that I had with families challenged me to re-examine my teaching style and how I relate my research to non-scientists.”

Meryl: “I really enjoyed organizing, developing, and participating in hands-on events for parents, grandparents, and kids of all ages at this year’s Paws-On Science. I created a life-cycle and habitat matching game that challenged players to match life stages of three aquatic species (a dragonfly, a fish, and a frog) with their individual habitats. It was so amazing to see some kids (and adults) get really committed to the game! I also loved answering questions about all things aquatic… many participants had such great questions, and it was a wonderful reminder of how much I love my job and how lucky I am to draw daily inspiration from the freshwater ecosystems around us.”

So beyond the satisfaction of knowing that we helped spread the word about the importance of freshwater ecosystems and non-native species, benefits to ourselves included examining and refining our teaching skills, inspiration, and a new appreciation for our research.  If you are graduate student wondering whether outreach is good investment of time, chances are you’ll gain many of these same types of benefits. Plus, it’s also just a lot of fun!

We also want to thank all of the students at School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences who gave their time to make activities and help staff the booth – Jessie Hale, Keith Fritschie, Wes Larson, Jesse Adams, Kristen Gruenthal, KathiJo Jankowski, Emma Hodgson, and Louisa Harding – it couldn’t have happened without you!