How do you take a mundane family festival and turn it metal?
Just add science.
Last spring, I was lucky enough to participate in the United States Science and Engineering festival in Washington DC. I traveled there with Harvard’s Microbial Science Initiative, running a booth about the helpful microbes that help make a lot of our food. We were a huge hit, and I don’t think our success was entirely due to all the lovable microbe plushies we gave away.
I’d never been involved in an event that large before, and I was a little nervous on the road trip down from Boston, worrying about how everything would go down. I was made more nervous by the awful little stretch of road that is the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s not only a grey, vapid eyesore, but is riddled with anti-science billboards condemning everything from vaccines to evolution.
Needless to say, by the time we reached Washington DC we all felt we had a serious task in front of us.
Luckily, we had a really great exhibit. We had prepared two dozen jars with various foods inside, all of which were made with the help of bacteria, fungi, or both. The top of the jar showed a fancy microscope image of the bug(s) involved, and on the bottom was a label with the name of the bug and the food. Kids (and the occasional curious adult!) had to guess things like whether or nor the bug was a bacterium or a fungus, which food is the national dish of Korea, which of the fancy cheeses comes from a specific region in France, etc. We varied the questions depending on factors like the kid’s age and how much they already knew about microbes, and gave away giant microbe plushies for correct answers and/or just old-fashioned curiousness.
Some of the things I took away from this experience include:
– Kids can be adorable, especially when they’re nerding out about science.
– Very few people know that yeasts are fungi (!).
– Few people think that not all microbes cause disease(!), let alone that a lot of microbes can be good for us(!!).
– Few people believed that I’m actually a grad student(!) and that I really honestly am not in high school (sigh). Really.
– A distinct memory of the lady that said “But you’re all so cute to be scientists! …At Harvard?!” And asked if she could take our pictures to document that cute Harvard scientists really exist. We said Yes, of course.
I saw Bill Nye give a talk! Here’s a crappy picture of him from my phone!
I saw “Mrs Frizzle!”
I now know a LOT of trivia about foods that are microbially fermented, which pretty much makes me the life of every party. And I like to think we all got really good at explaining some pretty abstract concepts to the wee ones, too.
The most challenging moments were when really, really little kids asked me questions, because I had to rack my brain for analogies that a three year old could grasp. There was one young boy that was super curious about how all the microbes had such different shapes. After likening cocci to grapes and rods to hot dogs, I pointed at a jar of chain-forming lactic acid bacteria, explaining, “And when these bacteria make a new bacteria, they stay really close to each other, like a family.”
I saw a light bulb go off in his head. Success! I felt I had successfully explained a component of microbial physiology to a toddler, and was feeling pretty pleased with myself. “You mean like they’re holding hands and singing songs?!” he clarified.
“…Yes.” I agreed. “Just like that.”