Podcasts: A Powerful Medium for Children’s Science Literacy
When I decided to start a science podcast for kids, there was one question I heard again and again: “Will kids pay attention to a story that has no pictures?”
It was 2014. Podcasts had just begun to enter the mainstream, and children’s media was all about flashy apps and games. Do kids have the ability – or even the desire – to simply listen anymore?
The answer is yes. After six years of making “Tumble,” a science podcast for kids, it is unambiguously clear that kids are deep and thoughtful listeners. Their active curiosity, imaginations, and love for stories makes podcasts a powerful medium for children’s science news.
It is a medium that has gained even more relevance during the current coronavirus crisis. We have been told that our recent episode, “Answering Kids’ Questions About Coronavirus,” helped calm anxieties that both children and their parents have been experiencing. Because parents often listen with their kids, we know we were able to reach both audiences with valuable information on the science that explains the outbreak and ways to combat it. In the midst of a global pandemic, fostering science literacy in the young – and their parents – has never been more important.
When I was starting out, I wanted to make “Tumble” because I didn’t like science when I was a kid. In school, I believed that science was a collection of facts, and everything that could be discovered had been discovered. It wasn’t until after college that I understood how wrong I was. When I interviewed a scientist for a freelance assignment, it finally hit me: Science was a way to solve problems I cared about, such as climate change, world health, hunger, and poverty. It was a human process, driven not by a few select geniuses, but a worldwide community of curious people trying to answer important questions.
That’s the message I wanted to reach kids like me. You don’t have to aspire to become a scientist or engineer in order to understand science. It’s about being smart participants in society and understanding that science is one of the most powerful tools we have to shape our future. I genuinely believe that if everyone knows how science works, the world will be a better place.
With a background in audio production, I decided podcasts were a promising opportunity to turn that message into a show. I roped my husband Marshall into the project, as the literal “in-house talent.” He is an educator and musician, which means he has a great skill set as a co-host, educational consultant, and composer. Our friend Sara Lentz, who is also a science reporter, joined us to help with production.
We did a lot of experimenting to find a format that explored the scientific process in a fun and engaging way. Our first guest was an ecologist who lived in our neighborhood and studied local salamanders. Shortly after we launched our show, we organized a series of focus groups, or “listening parties.” We gathered a group of our friends’ kids around a table to listen to an episode about insects, promising popsicles to come. I anxiously watched the group as they listened, worried that they just wanted to leave the table to grab an iPad. But after the episode finished, they surprised us by asking tons of questions. They wanted to know more.
After our discussion was over, they went outside to play, but quickly came back in to ask me to look at something. One of the girls was holding a dead wasp in the shell of a plastic Easter egg. The kids were firing out theories of what killed it. I asked if they usually played backyard forensic investigators. Never, they said. The episode had stoked their curiosity.
Qualitative data is great, but we wanted quantitative research as well. Since listening data isn’t collected for ages below 12 for legal reasons, we knew very little about how kids listen to radio or other audio mediums. The audience was invisible and neglected. That’s a big reason why I co-founded Kids Listen, an advocacy organization for podcasts for kids. With a few other pioneering children’s podcasts, we created the first-ever survey of kids listening habits.
As we suspected, the survey found that kids are enthusiastic and engaged listeners. Eighty percent of parents reported that their kids listened to favorite episodes more than once, with 20 percent of those children listening to the same episode 10 or more times.
Kids also were keen to take action after listening. They started discussions based on what they’d heard, shared what they’d learned, and requested more information. Parents said that their kids typically listened to a podcast for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, mostly at home or in the car. A recently published National Science Foundation-funded study from the podcast Brains On! and the Science Museum of Minnesota found similar results.
The audience for kids’ podcasts has grown steadily as awareness has increased. It’s difficult to choose a numerical metric of “success” because the space is still establishing itself. The most important indicators for “Tumble” right now are our steady audience growth and listener feedback. We hear from kids that they listen every day on the way to school, or every night before bed. Our podcast is part of their daily lives. Teachers tell us that they play the show in class. It helps them integrate listening comprehension skills into their lesson plans.
When it comes down to it, the secrets to making a great children’s science podcast aren’t that different from those of other mediums. Sentences are short and to the point, and concepts are clear and distinct. Great science stories are great science stories. But audio’s power is in its intimacy and ability to control the pace of how information is consumed. Ignite listeners’ imaginations with descriptions that let them paint a picture in their minds. Use the power of voice to communicate excitement and curiosity. Leave space for them to explore ideas on their own.
Podcasts rightfully have earned their place in the landscape of science news for kids. But the landscape is still too small. Even as STEM education becomes an ever more popular cause, there are relatively few outlets for children’s science news. The publishing industry remains skeptical that children will be interested in non-fiction stories about living scientists. We need to figure out how to use every tool in the toolbox – every form of media available – to reach our audience.
Communicating science to kids is a fun job, in any medium. But there is a serious reason to do it. In order to build a better future in a world facing so many challenges, we need a science literate society. Kids are the foundation of that future. We have a responsibility to engage and inspire them. It’s been an adventure to find a way to do it through their ears.
Lindsay Patterson is the creator, producer, and co-host of “Tumble Science Podcast for Kids.” She and her Tumble colleagues Marshall Escamilla and Sara Robberson Lentz won the 2019 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award in the Children’s Science News category.