How do I convey science to teens and twenty-somethings?
Estrella Burgos Ruiz explains how to communicate science to young people — it's about what interests and engages them, not a special language.
When it comes to science writing, young people (17–25-year-olds) are a difficult readership, and often overlooked as a result. They tend to show little interest in reading, and science may well have been an unpopular subject at their school.
However, in most countries they form part of the voting public as soon as they turn 18. So it's vital that this group of young decision-makers is just as informed about science issues as their older counterparts.
But how do you get the message across? Articles written in teen idiom seem artificial: the slang quickly goes out of date, and a patronising tone can creep in. Unless the authors are themselves in this age group, why should they try to talk like young people? Equally inappropriate are articles written in textbook style. The goal shouldn't be to teach science, but to bring people closer to it in an enjoyable way.
Doing so successfully requires that the writer knows the audience, knows how to interest the reader, and can explain the subject engagingly. Since these skills are only relatively rarely found in a single individual, it is often necessary to work with an editor to ensure an article is successful.
Know your audience
Assume you are facing intelligent and demanding readers who deserve the utmost respect. The challenge is to interest these readers. Young people are curious and still capable of being inspired and amazed. They also like to be challenged.
Explain the science
First off, it has to be clear. All its scientific content must be understandable to the reader, and of course, it must be accurate.
Consider which concepts in a story are familiar to the youngest readers. Anything beyond that has to be explained. For instance, you can assume they know what a cell is, but not recombinant DNA. And you can take it for granted that they've heard of stars and galaxies, but not necessarily of star clusters or quasars.
And don't shy away from writing about the scientific methods involved: it is important to show how scientists arrive at their answers, and it's part of the story!
Get them interested
Science is interesting if you succeed in showing what it's about and how it's done. But be aware that explanations, even if admirably clear, can be very boring. So the story has to show why it might be interesting to read, and then keep the promise.
There are several ways of doing this:
Appeal to the readers' curiosity. Ask yourself: is this idea — which might be quite radical — also possible? (Think of gene therapy, a solar sail spaceship, and time travel.)
Take an existing body of knowledge and ask - how did scientists figure this out? ( For example, the behaviour of bacteria, the dynamics of black holes, and evolution.)Even better, pinpoint a problem and ask, how can we solve it? (Here we might look at searching for extra-solar planets, identifying the SARS virus, or discovering the nature of dark matter.)
All these questions involve a challenge for the reader and are, at the same time, an opportunity to show science in the making, today. This is very attractive to readers, and particularly to young people.
Another way of getting readers hooked is to link a science subject with their interests. Topics to do with human health, sexuality, environmental conservation, computers, wildlife, music or sports are often appealing to younger readers.
Novelty, of course, is a powerful enticement. Even if an article is not about a recent scientific breakthrough, it is usually possible to give it a 'newsy' spin. If you intend to write about the atmosphere, you would be well advised not to settle for a simple overview, full of definitions and descriptions of what the reader already knows (many textbooks do this thoroughly).
Instead, explore any enduring mysteries in atmospheric science, say, or how scientists monitor the atmosphere today and what they are discovering.
Write in an engaging way
You must enjoy writing about your subject. If you are passionate about it, this will probably show in the piece and make it more gripping. Very often, the more personal an author gets, the better. Humour helps, too!
Whenever possible, include people in the story. Science, like any other human enterprise, is about people who struggle, and people who fail or succeed. Science is an adventure that your readers will want to share.
The editorial process
As we've noted, authors that can do all of the above are rare. More often than not, articles settle for clarity, but fail to attract the reader's interest; or they are appealing, but too complicated. One way to improve this kind of piece is to work with an editor.
While reading through the text, the job of the editor is to put him or herself in the shoes of the readers — that is, becoming sensitive to which parts they might find too difficult or boring.
The editor then gives several suggestions for improvement. These might include rewriting some parts, a new structure, additional information, or guidelines to make it more appealing for young readers.
The process is repeated when a new draft is received from the author, until both the editor and the author are satisfied.
The content of a published article is usually relatively demanding — it should require some effort from the reader, which is why it is essential to take so much trouble to make the text worth that effort. This approach is necessary when you want to go deeply into a topic (as deeply as a few printed pages will allow), showing what science is about and its rewards.
Ultimately, what you should try to communicate is the pleasure of knowledge, while encouraging a questioning, and sceptical attitude.
To summarise: there is no special language for communicating science to young readers. But there is a way of appealing to many of their special interests and aptitudes (which adults sometimes share) while also conveying what makes science so important to our lives — dynamic, interesting, challenging and, yes, difficult.
Estrella Burgos Ruiz is the editor of the science magazine ¿Cómo ves?
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this practical guide.