Understanding Science Through Play

The goal: to make science accessible to all members of society, and primarily to those who have previously had little access to science. Some people around the world are already committed to this goal, and to raise their numbers, the “Falling Walls Engage” forum in Berlin is presenting selected projects and organizations – among them Belgium-based Ekoli.

Alexandra Wolters | November 2018

Playful experiments arouse children’s curiosity: Here, they learn how to handle pipettes by isolating DNA from fruit. Understanding scientific correlations strengthens self-esteem.

The students’ desks are covered in white paper napkins and thinly sliced apples. Standing around these desks or kneeling on stools in a variety of colors are a group of seven and eight-year-old children. While they are dressed in red painter’s smocks, they don’t tinker or paint; they experiment: First off, the children use large pipettes to drizzle water on some of their apple slices, and vinegar or lemon juice on others. Then they wait. Now they check what’s happened to the apple slices. “They’ve turned brown,” the kids acknowledge. But not to the same extent. “You can hardly see a change in the apples sprinkled with lemon juice,” the surprised young researchers realize. But why is that so – and why do apples turn brown in the first place after you cut them up?

Such questions automatically come up after this simple experiment, Niek D’Hondt knows from experience. The Belgian biotechnologist and science educator is the co-founder and coordinator of Ekoli, a Belgian organization that aims to communicate science in a new way. “We are convinced that science is best understood through playful experiments, when curiosity leads to findings and knowledge,” he explains. Which is why Ekoli organizes two-hour workshops for teachers as well as children and adolescents aged between six and 18, which introduce them to simple but effective and often surprising experiments.

Using test tubes, pipettes, paints, cotton swabs, elastic bands, plastic trays, and other everyday items, Ekoli creates a simple and inexpensive lab in which, for instance, plant seeds can germinate under the influence of different chemicals or fruit DNA can be isolated. This way, the Ekoli team aims to arouse young people’s curiosity and reduce inhibitions toward science. “Our workshops always start with an introduction, which is as short as the topic allows. We keep theory to the bare minimum.” Niek and his colleagues at Ekoli prefer a hands-on approach – and also trust the children to work with fire and lab equipment. “They are usually so appreciative that they work together particularly responsibly and well.”

Why do apple slices turn brown? In sliced apples, the enzyme phenolase reacts with the oxygen in the air, causing the slices to turn brown. Antioxidants such as vitamin C slow down the working of the enzyme and consequently also the discoloration of the apple.

High time to rethink science communication

Ekoli primarily addresses neglected groups who have little or no exposure to science. This includes children from low-education backgrounds, those from socially or economically disadvantaged environments, and people with mental disabilities. “Unfortunately, these people are far too often believed to have no interest in science or no capacity to understand scientific issues,” Niek has learned. This, in turn, leads to low self-esteem among the marginalized groups: The children start to question their own intelligence and don’t even dare tackle scientific topics, let alone consider working in this field.”

In reality, participants usually give very positive feedback after the workshops, perhaps because they have never experienced science this way before. “Normally, I am not that interested in science, but this was pretty cool,” is the type of statement the Ekoli team often hears from the children and adolescents. The experiences of teachers are also positive when they bring content and experiments from the workshops into their classrooms. “We hear back from schools, and especially those in difficult environments, that students are suddenly enjoying joining in and are more involved.” Ekoli works with a brand-new and rather unorthodox approach to science communication. The positive experiences gained in the project, however, should encourage a rethink in science communication and the pursuit of new approaches and ideas.

Ekoli creates a simple and inexpensive lab using everyday items.

Award-winning best practice projects

The successes and innovative approach are among the reasons why the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Falling Walls Foundation chose the non-profit organization Ekoli to participate in the “Falling Walls Engage” forum. At the event in Berlin on November 8, the two foundations want to connect successful and innovative science communication projects, highlight best practice examples, and create a network.

Prior to the event, they had launched an international call for applications from projects that are particularly effective and economical, work with new approaches, and focus on target groups previously neglected in science communication. At the forum in Berlin, 20 selected projects will be presented to an interdisciplinary jury consisting of renowned researchers, museum directors, and journalists, who will choose the most successful approach as “Best of Science Engagement.” All selected projects will be presented as best practice examples to the global science engagement community and the general public in video clips on a website.

“We are incredibly proud to be invited and look forward to a lively exchange with members of other projects,” says Niek. He also hopes to meet the right people in Berlin who are interested in supporting Ekoli, both financially and via collaborations. Many helpers are needed to introduce as many people as possible to science – for example, in workshops where children experiment with apples. In doing so, they learn that there are substances like enzymes in the cut-open cells of the apple that react to oxygen and turn the apple brown. Vitamin C from lemon juice can serve as an antioxidant and slow down this discoloration process.

Ekoli has plenty of ideas: The organization would like to travel the country with a science truck full of scientific experiments for people to try out. This way, they could also reach people in their neighborhoods who otherwise would not be exposed to science.

Why the Robert Bosch Stiftung supports innovative science communication

We support a variety of science communication formats and want to encourage scientists to explain and communicate their values and methods – not only to an academically trained audience, but especially to those who have little exposure to science. Scientists have an asset at their disposal they should use to strengthen society’s capacity for democracy and discourse. In other words, enable people to distinguish between opinion, fact, and belief; make up their minds about a complex issue; put forward and verify hypotheses; and use plausibility and probability as tools in their decision-making process. Who could convey these skills more credibly than scientists? Through this commitment to greater scientific literacy – or a ‘fundamental reasoning and science competence’ – for all, scientists can make a vital contribution to a more cohesive society. People would gain more opportunities to participate in and shape society simply by having better orientation in a confusing and changing world.