Teaching complex science to 8-year-old kids

Science is often taught as magic. You pour sodium bicarbonate and Booom, you rocket launches. Which for kids, it is not different from saying “Alohomora” and boom, the magician disappears. Both things are fundamentally different, but if you only see the result, they are hard to tell apart, especially for kids. This is why I became interested in teaching the process and not the result. In fact, the next two ideas I successfully ran at my daughter class focus on playing and experimenting, and not on learning concepts.

Evolution:

Objective: See at play the heritability and natural selection concepts.
Material: Paper and pencil
Time: 45 min

Don’t tell them this activity is about evolution. Start by drawing 4-5 animal shaped sketches. Ask the kids to draw their offspring. Look at the children’s drawings and reflect about inheritance. Are they equal? No. Are they very different? No. Lesson one: There is heritance, but with variability.

Now “kill” a few drawings. Only the ones with long-ish neck survived, or only the ones with thick fur. You are acting as the natural selection. Then ask again the kids to draw the next generation of the surviving animals. I bet some will try to emphasize the surviving characteristics. Repeat the process and kill again the unfitted drawings. If any kid draws a super long neck or a super furry animal (or an animal with newly grown wings), kill it too, as it’s impossible from such parents to create such offspring.

After 3-5 generations wrap up the best you can and compare the first generation with the last one. Are they from the same species? has the species evolved?

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Alternative: If the group is big, split it in two after the first generation. The second group will migrate to an island, where selective pressures are different. Now you can compare the original parents with the two evolving lines and see speciation.

Network Theory:

Objective: Understand that networks are everywhere and that network structure matters.
Material: cork, thumbtacks, and rubber bands
Time: 45 min

I started the activity by asking which type of networks they know (P2P, Facebook, trophic networks…). Then I took a well-connected web made out of yarn and knots and ask a volunteer to cut a link. The web was unaffected. Then I took a second web with few connections and ask again to cut a link. The web was easily broken.

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However, the main activity consists of running a “bingo” game on a network like the one in the photo above, which mimics a plant-pollinator network with thumbtacks (species) linked by rubber bands (interactions). You give one network to each group. When a plant is randomly selected, you remove the thumbtacks and all rubber bands attached to it. If a bee runs out of rubber bands, it dies. The game ends when a group loses 6 bees. The interesting thing is to see how some groups lose bees way faster than others? Why? Kids tend to say because some networks have more rubber bands, but no. All should have the same number. It only depends on the structure. Hence, you should give them contrasting structures.

Now you can make a nested network and explain this is the shape they have in nature. Next, you can ask half of the groups to start “killing” the smaller, less abundant plants, and the other the larger, more abundant plants. Start by asking the second group if this structure is robust. They will say no! Removing 2-3 plants kills rapidly 6-7 bees. Now ask the second group. They will say it is robust, as removing almost all plants didn’t kill a single bee (see attached presentation). Wrap up explaining that in nature rare plants are gone first, and abundant plants are unlikely to get locally extinct first.

As a final wrap up, I made a fake social network of themselves (again, see presentation). I started by adding nodes strongly connected (best friends), then add modules (gangs or groups of friends) and then connectors (kids that like to play with different groups) and stress that these roles are dynamic, and ALL are important to make a robust network.

Find here the presentation I used and the PDF of the bee drawings made by my friend Paula Pereletegui (Thanks!). Corks can be bought at IKEA.

Disclaimer: These are quick notes for scientists that already know about evolution or plant-pollinator networks and want inspiration to reach out. If you want to do this at your school, but you are not familiar with the basic concepts I am happy to help. Just email me.

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