This season, UIUC Illinois focused on community outreach as a way of raising awareness about the benefits of synthetic biology. We hoped to reach local residents “just in time” by volunteering at two educational events aimed at young children at the local Orpheum Children’s Museum. We used Building with Biology kits to conduct four activities (two each weekend) relating to genetic engineering and microorganisms.
After the first weekend event, we discussed the results and concluded that some children seemed hesitant to participate in the activities. We wondered whether this could be because the thought of an activity centered around microorganisms was somehow unappealling to kids. We designed an age-appropriate attitudes survey to administer to children during the second week, as a way to answer this question. We were interested in seeing whether kids associated bacteria with illness or uncleanliness, since this link is often emphasized in elementary school health education.
Children's survey given at education outreach event
Surprisingly, we found that most children aged 4-8 could not complete the survey, because they were confused by the unfamiliar term “bacteria.” Most parents then prompted their children that bacteria meant “germs,” at which point the majority of respondents circled the green cartoon representation of a bacterium. This introduced bias into our survey, and so the main lesson learned was that kids are much less familiar with the concept of bacteria and microorganisms than had originally been assumed. We realized that kids of all ages need more exposure to these topics, and that when educating young children, we cannot assume that they already have a basic understanding of what bacteria are.
Toward this end, we also have planned to participate in the Science at the Market event at the local Urbana Farmer’s Market, where we will set up a booth and provide information to the community, which includes children and their parents. This event falls on Saturday, October 22, which is after the wiki freeze, so please plan on attending our presentation for more information!