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Outreach

Podcast: Science Storytellers is an outreach program that turns kids into science journalists—without the pesky deadlines

Stereo Chemistry delves into the storytelling program, which helps teach kids critical thinking while preparing scientists for anything in an interview

by Matt Davenport
November 26, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 47

 

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Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN
Credit: C&EN

For its latest episode, Stereo Chemistry handed its recorders over to kid journalists interviewing grown-up chemists about cutting-edge research. Listen in as the children get answers to questions about DNA, environmental clean-up, and even C–H activation. The kids’ reporting was part of an outreach program called Science Storytellers that took place during the American Chemical Society National Meeting in San Diego in August. Science Storytellers empowers kids to ask questions as they interact, one-on-one, with real scientists, such as synthetic organic chemist Jin-Quan Yu of Scripps Research Institute California (shown in the photo). In this episode, you’ll also hear from the creator of Science Storytellers, Jenny Cutraro, to learn how this outreach activity is designed to break down barriers between scientists and the public.

Subscribe to Stereo Chemistry now on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Spotify.

The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.

Arthur: Are you a chemist-ist?

Kyle Bentz: I am a chemist.

Matt Davenport: I’m Matt Davenport and I am not a chemist. But I can tell you what you’re listening to. It’s Stereo Chemistry. More specifically, though, it’s me eavesdropping on interviews between scientists and early-career science writers. Very early career. I forgot to ask Arthur here just how old he was, but I think it’s safe to assume he has not had any formal journalism training. Still, his questions are fire. Such as:

Arthur: Do you have like a smelting machine that can combine two elements together to make another element?

Matt: And then there’s was:

Arthur: How do you make soap?

Kyle Bentz: How do we make soap?

Arthur: Yeah.

Kyle Bentz: So our soap is really special...

Matt: Arthur’s interviewing Kyle Bentz, a postdoc in Seth Cohen’s lab at the University of California, San Diego. Their get-together is part of an outreach program called “Science Storytellers” that let’s kids interact with real scientists one-on-one, to help kids learn firsthand not just what scientists actually do, but how they do it and why it matters.

For example, Kyle got his bachelor’s in chemistry in 2011, the year after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion killed 11 people and caused the worst oil spill our oceans have ever seen. Nearly 5 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf.

Kyle went to grad school at the University of Florida and earned his PhD in 2017. His thesis was about next-generation polymers for cleaning up oil spills. Or, as he explained them to Arthur, special soaps. Arthur had questions.

Arthur: What’s the difference between like the bar soaps and the ones you just...

Kyle Bentz: The bar soaps and the liquid ones?

Matt: It was really cool to see this exchange when it happened a few months ago. And it’s really fun for me to listen to it now, as we close in on the end of the year. You know, the holiday season. When some of us grownups are hoping that our jaded hearts will grow three sizes as we’re reminded of the innocence and wonderment of youth. I had a chance to talk with Kyle more after Arthur finished his interview.

Matt (at Science Storytellers): What was your favorite thing about the Science Storytellers event?

Kyle Bentz: Just talking to the kids. I love how excited they are about even like just the simplest things. They’re so inquisitive and just the questions they ask are, I think they’re the questions that we don’t ask enough.

Matt (in studio): In this episode, we’re going to dive into Science Storytellers as a sort of cross-section of scientific outreach. At its core, outreach is about communicating and engaging with folks who aren’t in the lab. Who aren’t running simulations on supercomputing clusters or losing sleep to analyze data.

Outreach helps people see how science impacts their lives, for example, in the understanding the logic behind certain rules or policies. Outreach also helps bring people into the fold, so those people so maybe they can start to see themselves doing science. Or at least better understand why some people feel called to do it.

This Science Storytellers event was part of the ACS Kids Zone at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego at the end of August. The ACS publishes C&EN, which makes this podcast.

At the ACS Kid Zone, there were a bunch of demos for kids and their families, including this one that blew my mind where you could make art in a really gnarly way with food coloring and shaving cream. If you want to get a glimpse of what it was like, you should check out live video from the Kids Zone on our Facebook page. We’ll also share a link in this episode’s description.

But Science Storytellers was one activity amongst all this outreach goodness. And so you might be wondering why focus on this particular one? Because we work with Science Storytellers to put on events like this, and we’re proud to do it. Communicating chemistry is important to C&EN, no matter what the age of our audience is. Science Storytellers help kids communicate science using the tools of journalism—asking questions, taking notes, and then reporting out what they learned. Those things, those are literally what we do here. It’s a perfect fit. So on the day of the event, C&EN editors and reporters were there, helping to set up, direct traffic, and connect kids with scientists. And I was there with my recorder rolling.

So what we’ve got in store for you is more kids talking shop with chemists. We’ll take you inside some more conversations, like what you heard between Arthur and Kyle, to give you a sense of what the program is like. It will be adorable and there will be talk of cyborgs. Then you’ll hear from Jenny Cutraro, who created the program, to learn the story behind Science Storytellers. How did it start? What are its goals? Where can you catch it next?

And, of course, if you’re interested in outreach, you don’t need to wait for Science Storytellers to come to your town to go for it. You can try to link up with local schools or an ACS local section to learn more about opportunities. Or even just talk to kids you about what you do and why you do it, then be sure to let them ask questions.

So let’s jump back into a Science Storytellers convo. Our interviewer is David and our researcher Chava Angell. Chava is a PhD student in Yi Chen’s lab at UCSD where she studies DNA nanotechnology. I’ll let David take it from here.

David: What do you do about DNA?

Chava Angell: What do I do about DNA?

David: Yeah.

Chava Angell: So what do you know about DNA first?

David: I know that everybody has DNA.

Chava Angell: Yeah. So everyone has DNA. And DNA can determine what we look like. So what color are your eyes?

David: Brown.

Chava Angell: Brown. So that’s your DNA telling your body, “Hey, my eyes are brown.” But DNA comes in four bases and these four bases are what makes it up.

Matt: Chava came prepared for this. She’s got four different colored rubber bands, one for each type of base. Then she explains the rules. Going up and down, any color can bind to any color. But left to right, only certain color combinations are allowed.

Chava Angell: So, in this case, we’re going to say that pink binds with green, so let’s put those right next to each other on your notebook. Like this, yeah. And purple binds with orange. Exactly. And what we can do is put our purple and orange right underneath it and that’s a DNA strand. It’s cool right?

David: Yeah.

Chava Angell: And what I do is I actually design DNA sequences.

David: Hmm. What if like a green and a green?

Chava Angell: Those can’t bind that way. Now the green and the green could bind this way, longwise. But green can only bind to a pink.

David: Oh. What if like this.

Matt: David’s onto something.

David: This.

Matt: He builds up on what Chava showed him, green to pink, orange to purple.

David: And like this?

Matt: Boom.

Chava Angell: Yeah. That’s a sequence. You just built your own DNA sequence.

David: Like this?

Chava Angell: Exactly!

David: How interesting.

Chava Angell: So what other questions do you have for me? I can answer stuff about DNA.

David: When did you started this?

Chava Angell: When did I start working with DNA?

David: Yeah.

Chava Angell: About 5 years ago, I started my PhD.

David: But the thing is, 5 years ago, how old are you?

Chava Angell: Oh.

Matt (at Science Storytellers): [Giggles]

Matt (in studio): Five years ago, I was starting my career as a science writer and I had chance to meet a reporter for the news section of the journal Nature. I remember him describing what they looked for in writers and he said, “We want reporters who are fearless.” What I’m getting at here is that I think David could work for Nature.

Fearlessness aside, his interview with Chava was pretty representative of what I heard at Science Storytellers. In broad strokes, the kids would start out by asking the scientists what they worked on. The scientists would have an answer prepared for that part. But then the kids would just go wherever their curiosity took them and the scientists followed them into that uncharted territory.

But it was actually Fernando Soto, one of the scientists, who took the day where I least expected and I just have to share that. Fernando is a PhD student working on micro- and nanorobots in Joseph Wang’s lab at UCSD. In a recent paper, Fernando made what he calls rotibots. Rotibot is derived from rotifers, which are these blobby microscopic animals that live in the water. The bot part of rotibot comes from the fact the Fernando has loaded them up with engineered microbeads, little chemical machines that don’t hurt the rotifer, but can pull heavy metals and other contaminants out of the water as the rotibot swims around. He was telling this to his interviewer, Ollin, describing a rotibot as a kind of cyborg.

That’s when Fernando posed what might be my most favorite question ever. If you had to pick one animal to make a cyborg, what would it be?

Ollin: A hedgehog.

Fernando Soto: A what?

Ollin: A hedgehog.

Fernando Soto: A hedgehog, then you can make it run real fast like Sonic the Hedge. Very cool. I would like to use a raccoon because raccoons have very sensitive hands.

Matt: Three months later and I still can’t decide what animal I’d pick. Probably something from the cat family. Maybe an ocelot. An ocebot.

Anyhow, back to Science Storytellers. So you’ve just heard the kids kill the interviews. What about the reporting out? Well, they were awesome at that part, too. You’re about to hear from Ayla, who had been talking with Jin-Quan Yu of Scripps Research. He’s on organic chemist and his team is studying C–H activation. I’ll try to set this up without stealing Ayla’s thunder, but the idea is you start with inexpensive long hydrocarbon chains. Like the ones in soap molecules. Then you use a metal catalyst to activate C–H bonds and turn them into carbon-carbon bonds to make an even more useful molecule.

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Ayla: First it was soap.

Jin-Quan Yu: Soap.

Ayla: So that it could wash your hands and it could be like washing the dirt off your hands. Still useful. Still useful. But then if you could just introduce those two together—

Matt: The two carbons.

Ayla: Then it could make medicine.

Jin-Quan Yu: Yeah.

Ayla: That’s crazy.

Jin-Quan Yu: That’s crazy. You see, you get it. If it’s not crazy, not new, that’s not science. You get the point. You really get the point.

Matt: You might be picking how excited Jin-Quan Yu was to be part of Science Storytellers. To be fair, all of the scientists seemed to have a blast with it, but particularly Jin-Quan. I learned that part of this was because he grew up in a remote village in China and he says he doesn’t remember actually doing a science experiment until high school. So he was genuinely jazzed to be in the ACS Kids Zone, seeing children getting hands-on experiences with science at a much younger age than he had.

And another part of his excitement was getting to talk one-on-one with the kids. You could tell he took a lot away from that interaction.

Matt (at Science Storytellers): You seem very excited.

Jin-Quan Yu: Yeah, because I was surprised with what comes out of their mouths, what they are asking me. It exceeded my expectations, honestly. I am impressed with some of the kids, they can describe what you have taught them in 10 minutes in two sentences, more accurately than me.

And even some of them are also interested in how science can help society. There’s like a social consciousness and responsibility. That side I’m also impressed in.

Matt: We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, you’re going to hear from the creator of Science Storytellers, as well as the editor that got C&EN involved with the program. Stay tuned.

Matt: Well hello there. It’s still me, Matt. But I just wanted to take a break from the episode really quick to tell you about a super awesome webinar that will be coming your way on Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 2 pm Eastern. Lauren Wolf, the fearless leader of C&EN’s science coverage team, will be hosting a look back at our favorite chemistry breakthroughs from 2019. She’ll be joined by a panel of very special guests who will also be predicting what the big scientific achievements of 2020 are going to be. It’s going to be a ton of fun and you don’t want to miss it. So, again, mark your calendars for Dec. 4 at 2 pm Eastern. And stay tuned to our website cen.acs.org for more details. Or better yet, sign up for our newsletter. That way you’ll get the latest chemistry news and goings-on delivered right to your inbox. Sign up today at cenm.ag/newsletter. All right. Back to the show.

Jenny Cutraro: Science Storytellers. We held our first event in Boston in 2017 and the program itself came to sort of came to light just the fall before as an idea that I’d had simmering around in my mind for a while about how to better engage kids with science. And we’re going into our fourth year of running this event at science conferences.

Matt (in the studio): That is Jenny Cutraro, a science writer and the creator of Science Storytellers. That first Boston event was at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS. You’ll hear that abbreviation again later. Jenny and I caught up on the phone after the ACS conference in San Diego this fall.

Matt (on the phone): I don’t know the best way to describe science storytellers. Because it’s easy to say what it is, right? It’s kids have the opportunity to interact directly with scientists, interviewing them one-on-one. But I also feel like that doesn’t do it justice, right? The experience is so much more than that. I’m curious, Jenny, like when people ask you what is Science Storytellers, how do you explain that?

Jenny Cutraro: That is a great question. So, in part, I explained it the way that you just did. That it’s a program that gives kids a chance to sit down and interview scientists, the way that a professional journalist would interview a scientist if working on a story. But going a little bit below the surface, this program also is meant to break down barriers between scientists and the public. And to help not just kids have an opportunity to talk with scientists, but also to give scientists a chance to really engage on a more personal level, with an audience of people who may not be scientists themselves. So they they gain their own benefits from this program in that way too.

Matt (in the studio): Also on the line was C&EN’s very own Jessica Marshall, the editor who forged our partnership with Science Storytellers.

Jessica Marshall: I was at the first AAAS meeting where Jenny brought Science Storytellers and your phrasing is just right, Matt. Like the description just doesn’t do it justice. I thought, “Oh, that sounds kind of neat.” But then when you go and you see the looks on the faces of the kids and the scientists in sort of pure delight and pure engagement and just completely gaining from interacting with each other. Each learning from the other. The scientists are so surprised by the kids’ questions. The kids are so happy to just get to ask whatever they want and they’re so interested in what they’re doing. Their notes are super cute, what they’re writing down. And I just thought that I was I was totally blown away by what the actual experience was. And it just seemed like the kind of thing that C&EN and ACS might also really like to be a part of.

Matt (on the phone): Yeah, I think one of my favorite memories from the Science Storytellers event was walking around and seeing the notes that kids were taking during the interview with the scientists. The best one, I didn’t see it, but Lisa Jarvis, one of our other reporters who was there came up to me and said, “There’s a kid taking a note right there and it just says, ‘Did not know that.’” It was the cutest thing.

[Laughter]

Have there been any experiences from the last several years of doing Science Storytellers that stick out to you as your favorites, or maybe most memorable?

Jenny Cutraro: Sure. The program starts out with us giving kids a reporter’s notebook and a little sticky note with a bulleted list of questions that a journalist might ask of a scientist. They’re things like what is your research all about, why is this important, why are you interested in this and our second year into it, we added another question. And that question was, have you ever been wrong? And that year almost every response that we got back from kids on an exit sheet that they give us, every single kid wrote on their form, “I was surprised to discover that scientists can be wrong, that they can make mistakes.” One of them said, “I was surprised to discover that you blew up your lab one time.”

[Laughs]

Which, I wish I had been listening in on that conversation. That may sound like a little thing, but I think that is so important to get across to kids that scientists don’t just do an experiment and have an answer. They learn by trial and error. There’s so much messiness around science and I think for them it was really eye-opening. And the scientists that I spoke to afterwards also really enjoyed being asked that question because they don’t often get to talk about that.

That, to me, really speaks to a couple of things. And one of them is it’s probably time to take a deeper look at how we’re teaching science to young kids. And if they’re coming away with the idea that science is a bunch of facts and that scientists are always right, somehow, we’re missing the mark there. So I think that’s a bit of a red flag. And even for adult audiences, I think that can be somewhat of a surprise as well. And it’s a difficult thing to talk about, uncertainty and science and mistakes. That’s, I think, an area that’s really ripe for more research into perceptions about science and where they where they start up. Where do kids start thinking that you can’t make a mistake in science lab or that science is just about following basically a recipe for an experiment.

Matt: So Jessica, is there one memory that sticks out from your involvement?

Jessica: Yeah, more than any specific thing. It’s just this great visual to see the scientist sitting next to this kid with their notebook and just such an equal, such equal voices in that conversation. You know, the scientist taking the kids questions just as seriously as if it were an actual reporter sitting right there and just that interaction is amazing.

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Jenny Cutraro: And that’s, that’s really intentional on our part to. We really want to give kids some agency and the feeling that. They’re being heard and we’re letting them lead the way, kind of on purpose. It gives them just a little bit of a sense of power.

Matt: One of the things really impress me in San Diego was how much the kids knew about science and how much they wanted to share what they knew. But I’ve only been a parent for two years. Jenny and Jessica have both been parenting for longer, so I wanted to ask for their takes, too.

Is this something that your kids do? Like, is that just kids being kids?

Jenny Cutraro: Totally. I mean, I think kids especially if they already have some knowledge about something they love to share that and when you give them an audience that’s a scientist and they can share their science knowledge, they’ll run

Jessica: Yeah, they’re so locked in when they’re learning. Their attention is just locked. When it’s when it’s satisfying their curiosity, it stays with them, I feel like.

We had this thing, we were at the dinner table the other night and we were talking about atoms and molecules and protons, electrons, whatever. And we’re like, yeah, and the different atoms, they have different things. And carbon wants to make four bonds. And oxygen wants to make two and hydrogen wants to make one. Next thing you know, they’re just like drawing like free form, like it was like a puzzle, like a logic thing. And they were showing me these molecules, like “Does this one work?” I was kind of floored by that.

Jenny Cutraro: I love that story.

Matt: So, on the flip side of this, I loved how into it the scientists are, too. They’re there for it, right? Like, wherever the conversation goes, they are with the kid.

Jenny Cutraro: They really do engage on a very personal level. And I have had some scientists afterwards approached me to say, and this was especially true of earlier career scientists—PhD students, postdocs—that this is one of the first times during an outreach event that they’ve had a chance to talk about their own specific research. It’s not that they’re partnering with their university’s outreach team to run a demo or to give a talk about a topic. It’s really sometimes getting kind of into the weeds about what it is that they study. And I think that’s part of that engagement.

Jessica: I don’t know if this is totally true, but I have a sense that maybe some of the scientists volunteers come in assuming that it’s going to be a little more of that kind of traditional interaction of, like, I’m here telling you what I do. And so I think— maybe— they’re also sort of inspired and refreshed by what a what a conversation it is and how much the kids bring to it.

Matt: So, any plans for the next one? Like for folks listening, is there something they can look forward to?

Jessica: I don’t think we have planned for sure for our next ACS iteration, we hope that we can be back again. But it’s also coming to Seattle in February, right, Jenny. For AAAS?

Jenny Cutraro: AAAS is. I have a feeling that there are some C&EN editors who already may be facilitating some of these conversations at the booth once again. I’m very excited to have them there.

Jessica: Yes, I live in Seattle. And so I plan to be a volunteer at the Science Storytellers event at AAAS in February, which will be a lovely way to spend a day.

Matt (in studio): If you are a scientist or a science writer who would like to be involved with Science Storytellers this February in Seattle, drop Jenny a line at jenny@sciencestorytellers.org. That’s Jenny with a Y. You can also follow Science Storytellers on Facebook and Twitter.

Before we sign off, we wanted to extend a huge thanks to the Fleet Science Center in San Diego for sharing their amazing venue with us. And to ACS’s Office of External Affairs and Communications, which helped fund C&EN’s partnership with Science Storytellers in San Diego. And, lastly but not leastly, to all the wonderful volunteers who helped at the ACS Kids Zone, including the Science Storytellers scientists: Chava Angell, Kyle Bentz, Darryl Boyd, Gary Siuzdak, Fernando Soto, Audrey Velasco-Hogan, and Jin-Quan Yu.

This episode was written and produced by me, Matt Davenport. Stereo Chemistry is edited by Lauren Wolf and Amanda Yarnell. Our fantastic copy editor is Sabrina Ashwell.

Now let’s talk about music. In today’s episode, you heard “Stomp” and “Oasis” by Rex Banner, as well as “Here We Go Again” by Jake Bradford-Sharp and “Cold” by Anthony Lazaro.

We’ll be back in December with another brand new episode and with a little luck, maybe an ocebot. Thanks for listening.

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