Solutions 12:27 01 Jun 2024

Exploring the world through science: Ukrainian initiative organizes STEM activities for children

STEM specialties — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — are the future of post-war Ukraine. Ukraine aims to encourage kids to study exact sciences and overcome gender stereotypes in Ukraine already today. Rubryka tells how the initiative works, which makes children fall in love with science.

What is the problem?

More than two million Ukrainian children had to leave Ukraine, fleeing from the horrors and dangers of war. More than a million children in Ukraine are only able to study online because Russia is constantly attacking the frontline regions. And it cannot but affect children. It is difficult for them to establish contact with adults and peers, and they lose interest in learning at all. For those abroad, it also leads to losing ties with the Ukrainian educational and scientific environment.

What is the solution?

For the sixth season in a row, the Science Kids project—a free popular science lecture for children launched by the non-governmental organization INSCIENCE—is running in Ukraine. At lectures, children are told about space, animals, archeology, physics, biology, and natural wonders. Most of the webinars and offline meetings are conducted by Ukrainian scientists: neurobiologists, zoologists, physicists, geneticists, astrophysicists, and biotechnologists.

Among the main goals of the educational initiative is to support children and make as many children as possible in Ukraine and the world fall in love with science and the scientific method while contributing to building a conscious and knowledgeable society in the future.

How does it work?

INSCIENCE decided to create the Science Kids project in the first months of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The organization says the initiative's engine was the desire to support children forced to evacuate abroad because of the war.

The team launched free online lectures with scientists to help children adapt to a new place. The scientists discussed exciting scientific facts with the children and taught them some new words in the foreign languages of the countries where they found themselves. The process was organized to maintain contact with the Ukrainian educational environment and peers and support them through interesting extracurricular studies.

"After the first season of Science Kids, we realized that there is a great demand for such a project from children and parents, and it should be sustainable and long-term," says Anna Orekhova, co-founder of INSCIENCE. A community of children who are excited to learn about the world together with scientists began to form around it. Some children, staying abroad in the same country, met in person and made friends.

The project was made possible thanks to grant support. Therefore, all webinars are free of charge for children and their parents because the team is convinced that education is now more important for Ukraine than ever.

Tasks of the project

Science Kids

Children listen to a lecture on the history of paints by the craftswoman Diana Dyadyk, Kharkiv. Photo: Yevhen Myronenko

The main task of the lectures is to form a generation of children who will learn about the world through science and create a progressive society. The INSCIENCE team is confident that in order to rebuild and develop post-war Ukraine, quality, free, and accessible STEM education must increase in the country today.

Another important task the initiative works on is promoting gender balance in science. It is crucial that from childhood, both girls and boys see excellent examples of women in science and technology. For this purpose, the schedule of events is formed so that at least half of the lectures are conducted by female scientists. The results of this approach can already be seen: in 2019, only about 10% of the INSCIENCE children's event attendants were girls, and now, it's 50 to 60%.

Science Kids is a great opportunity for children to get free Ukrainian-language content, communicate with scientists, and find new hobbies and friends from different countries.

The project's audience is children aged eight to 12 who are forced to move to other cities or countries due to a full-scale war. The project aims to support and develop children's natural curiosity, raise a generation of scientifically oriented teenagers, help them learn about themselves and the world around them through science, and motivate them to create technological projects.

Making children fall in love with science

Science Kids

Children examine the soil together with soil scientist Olena Ozhovan, Odesa. Photo: Maryna Doroshenko

Since the INSCIENCE team has worked with scientists for over five years, the organization has accumulated many contacts in this field. Also, the team is constantly looking for new lecturers, particularly among young scientists. This is greatly helped by the fact that Olena Kompaniets, the educational curator and lecturer, is an astrophysicist herself and well-versed in the field. As of now, Science Kids has managed to attract more than 80 scientists.

As project manager Polina Limina explains, to understand how much the event will interest children, every lecturer can ask themself one simple question: What would I be interested in reading, watching, or listening to as a child? About the rings of Saturn? Dinosaurs and mammoths? Robots? Egyptian pyramids? The lives of different animals?

"Most likely, what fascinated us in childhood will also resonate with modern children," Limina is sure.

Science Kids

Children listen to a lecture by soil scientist Olena Ozhovan in Odesa on the difference between Earth's soil and Martian soil. Photo: Maryna Doroshenko

The answers to these questions are actually of interest to adults as well. Victoria Terekhova, a Science Kids lecturer and entomologist, shares that some of the webinars are of great interest even to her as an adult.

However, only an interesting topic is not enough — you also need to charge others with your knowledge. To do this, the project team conducts rehearsals with scientists, where the structure of the lecture and the story are worked out. According to Limina, this approach brings excellent results. After several events, scientists who have not previously performed in front of children's audiences are already becoming great children's lecturers and popularizers of science for children and parents.

The main secret of any promotion is a dynamic, interactive story. So, lecturers always involve a lot of visual material, memes, and videos. They share exciting stories, conduct experiments, show not only photos and videos but also real exhibits, and at the end of the lectures, they add activities in which you can use the information you just heard. All this is done to interest children in questions or a scientific challenge. At the same time, as the scientists themselves note, it is essential to respect your listeners, not to protect them too much from complex material, and not to turn the lecture purely into a collection of funny stories.

Limina shares that the team has been looking for a balance in simplifying information for a long time because there is a lot of terminology in science, which is often incomprehensible to everyone except scientists. However, when preparing lectures, it is equally important not to simplify too much: children often like it when they do not understand a small part of the material — this encourages them to look into the topic on their own even after the event, to search for new information and to feel satisfaction when they manage to conduct their own small research.

Does it really work?

Science Kids

Danya, a visitor to Science Kids offline events, shows a virus model made at the lecture in Kharkiv. Photo: Yuliia Islyamova

Since the summer of 2022, Science Kids has managed to attract about 10,000 children to popular science events and launch three offline Science Kids centers.

Kharkiv, Odesa, and Mykolaiv were chosen for the first offline spaces, which began their work in December 2023 with the support of UNICEF and the French government. These cities are located near the war zone, and, according to the observations of the project team, it is there that children have an acute lack of communication with their peers because there are not enough safe locations in the cities, and most schools work remotely. As a result, the motivation to learn about the world is lost, and morale deteriorates.

"We wanted to combine children's socialization with cognitive leisure. For this, we choose shelters, the location of which we inform only after registration for security reasons," explains Limina.

In science spaces, children can get free STEAM education, socialize and reduce stress, and gain practical knowledge about mental health and nutrition.

The team added activities to the popular science lectures that allowed children to slightly improve their mood, ground themselves, and get acquainted with some psychological exercises. 

"We receive a lot of feedback from parents and children, how such events help to distract and increase interest in learning — and this is the most valuable," says the project manager.

Science Kids

Children paint shoppers at an event in Kharkiv. Photo: Yevhen Myronenko

For example, in Kharkiv, project meetings occur in the shelter of one of the schools. Here, children can meet their peers and learn something new, and parents do not worry about their safety.

"Our children are incredibly smart. Even smarter than I thought. This is a real discovery for me! Whenever we, as a team of adults, think that some information will be difficult to grasp, the children surprise us with their answers and knowledge and their willingness to explore new things at cosmic speed. I really hope that children will be able to keep this passion, curiosity about the world, and, in the best sense, crazy ideas and carry them through their whole lives," says Anna Orekhova, co-founder of INSCIENCE and project coordinator.

How do STEM events affect children?

Science Kids

Ihor, a visitor to Science Kids events, performs a psychological exercise called Mykolaiv. Photo: Oleksandr Gerasymenko

There is a wonderful saying that if you don't know physics, the world around you becomes full of magic. According to the founders of the project, one should study science at least in order not to fall into the delusion that the planet actually decided to change the direction of movement after hearing about retrograde Mercury. After all, when we know astronomy and physics at a basic level, we are less likely to believe that stars hundreds of light years away somehow affect our lives. In the same way, the basics of chemistry, biology, and anatomy can save us from the harmful effects of unproven medicine.

Communicating with scientists gives another advantage: children understand exactly how science works from an early age. Actual research takes a lot of time, testing, and trials and involves many people questioning everything. There are no experts who know everything — real scientists will easily admit that they do not know something and explain why.

"It is incredibly gratifying when children themselves begin to critically evaluate information. For example, they send us dubious news in the chat that allegedly some black hole will soon swallow the Earth or aliens have already landed somewhere in America. In such cases, our team explains to children how to distinguish quality sources from fakes and where to look for verified information. Therefore, a good STEM education is a key to media literacy and critical thinking," Limina notes.

Science Kids

Children listen to a lecture about emotions by psychologist Alyona Butova, Mykolaiv. Photo: Oleksandr Gerasymenko

It is equally important that the coordinators encourage the children to ask the scientists everything they are interested in regarding the lecture. New information about the world increases curiosity and develops creativity, making you look at something from an unexpected angle.

Science Kids lecturers, real scientists, share that they became interested in science in childhood:

"In junior school, I grew butterfly caterpillars that I found on the street, in an old sideboard on the balcony. Since then, I dreamed of studying insects," says entomologist Victoriia Terekhova.

"Once at school, I learned that a person's DNA and a banana's DNA are 70% identical. Of course, later, I realized that the percentage of coincidence is different there, that there is junk DNA that does not carry any information, but humans and bananas have many processes in common. But the love for science appeared just then," biotechnologist Olena Syroid shares her story.

In her turn, astrophysicist and educational curator of Science Kids Olena Kompaniets recalls that she was always curious about what was out there in space as a child. She grew up in a village in the Kherson region, where the sky is incredibly starry. Contemplating the night sky and fantasizing about how distant civilizations develop and how they travel through space defined the future profession of astrophysicists.

"I like to think of science as a key to opening the world around us. Therefore, we make children fall in love not directly with science but with the fantastic things surrounding us at every step," Limina continues. "For example, we look through a microscope at fallen leaves and see a tardigrade there — a microscopic animal. And then, when we delve into its history, it turns out that the one-millimeter-sized creature is able to survive in outer space and may even have accidentally settled on the moon due to a spacecraft accident. Thus, from looking through a microscope at a tardigrade, we can get to the question of how humanity prepares for trips to other planets and what kind of research is being done for this."

Even more useful solutions!

Science Kids

Children conduct experiments at the INSCIENCE CONFERENCE 2023. Photo from the organization's archive

The project team invites all Ukrainian children and their parents to join in watching the webinars, and in parallel works to open offline spaces in other Ukrainian cities, in particular, where there are many IDP children. 

"The project aims to increase the number of available extracurricular activities for children throughout Ukraine and beyond. "Recently, I came across data that only 7% of children attend scientific and technical extracurriculars. At the same time, according to other statistics, about half of junior school students have something from the STEM field as their favorite subject," says Limina.

The project manager notes that when children who have received scientists as role models from an early age are faced with the choice of a specialty and institutions of higher education, there will be more chances that they will choose science or technology because they will understand their value. Accordingly, society will receive more scientific and technological developments, products, startups, and businesses in the future. This, in turn, will positively impact all spheres of life, from the quality of various services to the country's defense capability. However, even if such children choose a different profession, they will still benefit from STEM education. After all, they will know, for example, who and what to involve in their business to make it more innovative. And they will be more competitive in a world full of technology.

Parents themselves can organize cognitive leisure for children if there are no educational initiatives similar to Science Kids nearby. What the project team advises:

  • Joint and cognitive leisure can be organized from any household activity. For example, at one of the offline events, the children first learned the composition of several store-bought bottles of drinking water and brewed tea from these samples and compared how the taste differs depending on the chemical elements of the water. At another event, an environmentalist showed participants how different types of plastic look under a magnifying glass, and then everyone learned to sort them correctly in a game format. Having previously prepared the necessary information, these classes are easy to organize at home.
  • If you have the opportunity to get out into nature with your children, then everything around you can also encourage you to explore. For example, you can arrange a competition: who can see or photograph more birds. To recognize them, you can use the Merlin Bird ID application, which identifies birds by singing. The same tests can be done with plants or mushrooms. The main thing is to immediately teach children to treat nature with care and not to disturb the inhabitants of ecosystems.

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