Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Writing science for kids

I just emailed off my contribution to a children's book on which I was asked to do some scientific editing. The book is an outgrowth of some work I do with middle-school kids.. Part of this year's program focused on ***** (obtuse I know, but pseudonymity calls)- a topic that the non-scientist would expect me to know something about, but that is almost totally unrelated to what I do. I didn't develop this year's program, and I remember being somewhat confused by the results that the kids were getting when they ran their experiments. It didn't gibe with my sense of "how things should work" based on my observation of natural phenomena and some really elementary physics.

So anyways, a few weeks ago I got an email from the woman writing the book looking for help with the science in the ***** section. She had three choices for help, a biochemisty who had designed the experimental apparatus, an outside expert with no idea what the kids actually did, or me. I was pleased that she chose me for help and terrified that the biochemist would give her an answer that was simplified to the point of wrongness. So I agreed to edit the 7 pages of the book.

Well it turns out that ***** are really complicated. Maybe simple in the pure sense, but awfully darn complicated in the real world - especially where there is complex topography. I literally spent several hours on the internet and with basic textbooks trying to find the "correct" answer to the question the kids had been experimenting with. I had to resort to the Journal of ***** Mechanics, which is filled with all sorts of gobbledy gook equations.

Finally having something of a handle on the topic myself, I then had to translate what I had learned into language that worked for a 7th grader. Keep in mind, that the average 7th grader knows absolutely nothing about physical science. And then, I had to think at least a little about my writing. And then, I had to go through the author's writing with a fine toothed comb to purge it of things like the unneccesary mixing up of terms like "area" and "volume."

But I did it. Thank goodness I asked to be paid for my efforts. I'll get about 150 bucks and a bit of an education out of the deal. In the end though, was it worth it?
Probably not for the money, probably not for what I learned about *****, but probably yes for the experience of working on such a project. And definitely for making sure that at least one kid's science book is at least somewhat correct.

Have any of you ever done any consulting work while in grad school? Was it worth it?
How about any science writers out there...is what I experienced your everyday challenge?


RageyOne said...

During my first year of my program I was invovled in writing a technical report. The opportunity to do so came out of a class project on instructional product evaluation.

For me, it was well worth the experience. I learned a lot about concise writing and I was paid handsomely for my work.

trillwing said...

During my first three years of grad school, I worked at/with a hands-on science center that caters to elementary-age students. I took science lessons to preK-6 classrooms, designed very low-cost exhibits, taught summer classes, and evaluated new family science programs. It was an eye-opener in all respects, and especially difficult for me because I was an English major and am in a humanities Ph.D. program instead of a science one. Still, the efforts were so rewarding (intellectually and emotionally, not financially!) that I thought about writing my dissertation about hands-on science education and gender, and I've flirted with the idea of going into this decidedly less-than-lucrative field. It was certainly a fun series of jobs, and I loved being able to spend my working hours reading up on all that science I missed during college.

Astroprof said...

It is actually very good for you to have to think about how to explain something very complicated in very simple terms, and yet still correct. Now, if only everyone writing a journal paper had to do that once in a while, then the journals would not be so painful to read sometimes. I occasionally write things for non-scientists, and I really enjoy it. Such things frequently work their way back into the classes that I teach.

Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

Good on you for doing this! My kids are the kind who will pick up a book like this and be utterly earnest about its claims -- so we appreciate the striving for accuracy as well as clarity.

(Of course, I'm expecting we'll have lots of dinner-table discussions about the abstraction inherent in making complicated entities and phenomena comprehensible -- is abstracting away "lying"? What do you want to bet the two children will defend opposite views on this?)

sheepish said...

As a post-doc, I wrote an article for a science encyclopedia. It completely wasn't worth the ~250 bucks I was paid, since it took a long time to do. However, it doesn't hurt to have on a resume, it was good writing practice, and I now get to say I have something in an encyclopedia!

Kjerstin said...

I'd say this is probably the most difficult thing you can do when it comes to science writing. A science book has to be absolutely correct, and writing for children is challenging. When I write stories about science for a non-scientist audience, I shamelessly ignore “less important” details, and I struggle to make my language interesting, sometimes at the expence of accuracy. But then my aim is to make the reader intrigued rather than stuff her with facts. Obviously you can't do that in a project such as yours. Otherwise I feel at home in your description of the amount of research needed for what seems like a fairly small output. I'd venture to guess you've had a very useful experience :-)

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