This post was contributed by Evelyn Christian Ronning, Amy Grack Nelson, Marjorie Bequette, and Choua Her of the Science Museum of Minnesota.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, up-to-date and accurate information is key—and kid-friendly information is often hard to come by. Knowledge and communication within families can help kids feel more secure and less worried about the causes and consequences of the pandemic. The informal science education (ISE) field is working hard to keep up with a quickly changing STEM learning and engagement landscape. And unfortunately, by necessity, museums and science centers—often the primary sources of ISE support for families—have been forced to shut down or severely reduce visitorship during critical moments of the pandemic. In the midst of crisis when the situation may be most urgent, the needs of young people can go unmet.
Families are seeking trusted and engaging sources of scientific information to help their children understand a wide range of pandemic-related topics. This strong interest in kid-friendly COVID-19 resources is evident in the record number of downloads of the pandemic-focused episodes of American Public Media’s Brains On! podcast. A team of researchers at the Science Museum of Minnesota, in partnership with Brains On!, set out to learn more about the role that ISE, through podcast media, can play in providing families with science-based information to help ease children’s worries, answer their questions, and support family conversations about the pandemic.
Our first stage of research reveals important insights into the worries and questions children have and the types of support caregivers need in order to understand and discuss pandemic-related science topics. Here are a few areas where ISE resources could benefit children and their families:
1. Discussing and navigating risk. As the “new normal” of life during a pandemic sets in, caregivers want help discussing and navigating the risks related to safely interacting with people outside their households. Our data show that caregivers are clearly struggling with understanding and evaluating the risks associated with participating in various social activities. Caregivers also need support explaining the reasoning behind the relative risks to their children, why preventative measures are important, and how their children can employ them to interact safely with others.
2. Dealing with an uncertain future. Children and their caregivers are concerned that leaders and public health experts cannot say how long preventative measures will be in place or how long it will be before key activities, like school or socializing with friends and family, can resume. Some children even expressed the worry that life may never go back to “normal.” Underlying much of the uncertainty are questions about vaccine development and availability. One way that caregivers can help address children’s feelings of uncertainty is to provide historical examples of pandemics or other public health crises, but they need support to have these discussions. Providing historical examples of how children and their families have coped during past pandemics can provide a counternarrative about resilience and adaptability to children’s worries, giving them some hope for the future. (For example, the information shared in this episode of Brains On!.)
3. Understanding the nature of science. During the pandemic, the public has heard more than usual about the messiness of the scientific process. Public health guidelines change as we learn more about the virus and sometimes new information contradicts what scientists previously thought they knew about it. The revision of guidelines can cause people to feel like they don’t know what to believe or which guidance to follow. Caregivers want help discussing how and why scientific knowledge changes: a key aspect of the nature of science that the ISE field can help address.
Review our executive summary or full report for more ideas on how to support families’ pandemic-related information and educational needs. We also developed a resource guide with links that may help caregivers and informal educators talk to children about the COVID-19 pandemic. When we shared these materials at our own museum, Ronda Maurer, Director of Visitor Relations, immediately offered them to our visitor-facing staff. She described the materials as “conversational,” explaining: “the interactions we have with visitors tend to be casual and relational. We don’t try to be teachers but facilitators of learning experiences. These are tools that supports that work.”
Our data tends to reflect the experiences of white-identifying, high-income, and highly educated families, and, as a result, the voices from populations that have been most affected by the pandemic because of economic and racial disparities are not adequately represented in our study. Even with this limitation, we hope our research findings can provide some insights to inform the development of coronavirus-related ISE resources and practices in communications with families that are responsive to their information and education needs, as the course of the pandemic continues.
This material is based on work supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2029209, titled RAPID: Addressing Families’ Covid-19 Information and Education Needs Through Podcast Media. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
About the authors
Evelyn Christian Ronning is Research and Evaluation Senior Associate, Amy Grack Nelson is Manager of Research and Evaluation in Learning and Choua Her is Research and Evaluation Associate, and Marjorie Bequette is Director of Research and Evaluation in Learning at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
A version of this post also appears on the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education’s blog.