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Wallpaper, wax and paper DNA: the tools of a mini scientist

by Guest Author on 7 Aug 2012

Mini Scientists at the Edinburgh Science Festival

Mini Scientists at the Edinburgh Science Festival

MRC Regional Communications Manager Hazel Lambert reveals a little of what goes into preparing research for curious ‘mini scientists’, just one of the activities in which MRC researchers share their expertise with thousands of people at UK science festivals every year.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are flooded with rain so wellies are essential for walking in Scotland’s cities today. I leave mine at reception in the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit where I’ve come to meet researchers who’ve been developing a game they call Health and the City. I’m looking for new ideas for Mini Scientists, the MRC lab at the Edinburgh International Science Festival where MRC-funded researchers help kids aged seven and over explore stem cells, DNA and even cell-signalling with the help of play-doh and cuddly brain cells.

PhD student Gillian Fergie shows me a tower block and tenement she has improvised out of wooden blocks and laminated paper to represent Glasgow’s housing. Using a blank roll of wallpaper liner as our city backdrop, and interlocking sections of toy road, cars and trees, we think about how we can share public health research with festival-goers.

The Health in the City game

The Health in the City game

Step by step we design the Health and the City game to introduce challenges to help children think about healthy choices. If in the game they travel by bus or car to school, it prompts the question “When will you exercise today if you don’t walk or cycle?” Children have the playground but adults have fewer opportunities to exercise, often travelling to and from the office in a vehicle and sitting down all day. We hope the game will enable players to think about how the choices they make now will influence their health throughout their lives.

Next stop is the Glasgow branch of the MRC Institute of Hearing Research. I’m met by Neil Kirk, a research assistant wearing bumble-bee yellow headphones with what looks like the underside of my kitchen sink attached. “Kids are always surprised by where the sound comes from when we swap the pipes about,” PhD student Alan Boyd explains as he talks into a red funnel at the end of a pipe.

Neil Kirk and Alan Boyd test the equipment at the MRC Institute for Hearing Research (Glasgow)

Neil Kirk and Alan Boyd test the equipment at the MRC Institute for Hearing Research (Glasgow)

In both meetings we talk a lot about key messages; the essence of what it is we are trying to share about research. We’ll return to them again and again as we shape the activities. It’s crucial to keep a science festival activity true to the research it represents. The science might be simplified but if it’s not credible scientists won’t want to demonstrate it and kids won’t learn what we hope they will.

Last year, I tried to turn a four-year-old away as being too young for Mini Scientists. His mum said: “This morning he asked me if bacteria grow on electricity, so I brought him here because you have real scientists who can answer his endless questions.” I was convinced. After building a virus out of paper DNA, play-doh and drawing pins, he turned seriously to the PhD student who had helped him and said: “If you changed the virus’s DNA could that mean it wouldn’t be able to infect cells anymore?” Watching as the student composed herself and her answer I learnt never to underestimate the Mini Scientists audience.

Bacteria don’t grow on electricity, but ideas do grow from mini-scientists and in the future we’ll need them.

Hazel Lambert

The Mini Scientists activity returns to the City Arts Centre at the Edinburgh International Science Festival from the 23 March to the 7 April 2013. All MRC funded-researchers and students working in Scotland are invited to volunteer and training will be provided. Contact Hazel Lambert if you’d like to take part.  


“real scientists who can answer his endless questions”… I’ve heard lots of variations on that from parents who bring their kids in for marine interpretation sessions!
It’s amazing what four and five-year-olds can pick up and retain and how logical some of them are with thinking through how viruses work or, in my area, how pollution/overfishing or other anthropogenic factors affects sea life.
Great article Hazel, thanks for the view into how the MRC engages kids.

author avatar by Steve P on 08-Aug-2012 06:57

Thanks Steve! Enjoying following your aquatic adventures too. I once held up a velvet swimming crab to an audience of kids while sitting in a pool in a drysuit wearing a mic, I was talking about how if a crab nips you the best thing to do is put it back in the water, you can guess what happened next. The kids laughed a lot at me screaming with a crab hanging off my finger and I got a real telling off for it going out over the PA system…

author avatar by Hazel Lambert on 08-Aug-2012 11:38

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