05:31 AM

Bringing science to the kids

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When you volunteer at a linguistics booth for kids at a science conference, you never know who you’ll meet.

Kathryn Campbell-Kibler met a third-grade girl who made up her own language.

“She got a piece of paper and wrote out the symbols in her made-up language,” Campbell-Kibler said. “One of the things that struck me was that she had dots that indicated whether you read the text forward, backward or up or down. It was amazing.”

Campbell-Kibler, an associate professor of linguistics at The Ohio State University, met the girl at “Family Science Days,” a part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that was held recently in Austin, Texas.

At Family Science Days, held in an exhibit hall in the Austin Convention Center, children of all ages visited booths hosted by scientists on topics from astronomy to zoology, all presented in an engaging and easy-to-understand way.

Campbell-Kibler was volunteering at the “Language Science for Everyone” booth co-sponsored by the Linguistics Society of America. The booth coordinator for the past three years has been another Ohio State faculty member, Laura Wagner, who is an associate professor of psychology and linguistics.

“If you’re going to reach hearts and minds, do it while they’re young,” Wagner said. “If we can get kids curious about language science early, we hope that it can spark a long-term interest. That’s what our booth is all about.”

About 1,000 people – mostly young children, but also their parents and other adults – stopped by the booth this year to get a “picture” of their voice taken or participate in a dialect map task, among other activities.

The enthusiasm of the faculty and graduate student volunteers at the booth was contagious, and they had no problems enticing visitors to stop by and sample some of the science.

“We want people to know that language is more than learning English and grammar. Language science includes biology, physics and psychology, too,” Wagner said.

Campbell-Kibler had kids (and some adults) say their name or other phrase into a microphone attached to her laptop. Software created a visual representation of their voice, which she printed off for them.

While children are thrilled to get a picture of their voice, it is more than a novelty. Campbell-Kibler uses this software in her research. The spectrograms created by the software allow her to see how a person pronounces certain vowel sounds, which is one focus of her research.

In the case of the girl with her own language, the picture of her voice sparked a conversation.

“We had a really great talk. I was so impressed with her that I gave her my card. We have a high school summer camp for linguistics at Ohio State and I told her if she was still interested in languages when she gets older, she has to come hang out with us,” Campbell-Kibler said.

The Language Science for Everyone booth wasn’t the only one at Family Science Days where Ohio State faculty and graduate students shared their love of science with the public.

Several Ohio State representatives also volunteered at the nearby Science Storytellers booth, which invited kids to interview scientists about their work.

“We want to provide a space for kids and scientists to sit down and have a conversation,” said Jenny Cutraro, founder of Science Storytellers.

In Austin, kids were given notebooks and suggested questions (such as “What questions are you trying to answer?” and “Why are you curious about that?”). They then pulled up a chair next to a scientist and started talking.

“We let the kids be in charge of the conversations. The scientists loved having a chance to talk in such an informal way,” Cutraro said.

Afterward, the children were invited to answer some open-ended questions about their conversation, such as “A scientist I interviewed is curious about…”.

Cutraro said that the results were fascinating, with kids writing things like “I was surprised to discover that scientists make mistakes.”

Those are the kinds of revelations that Cutraro said Science Storytellers is designed to bring about.

“Part of our goal is to pull back the curtain and let children see how science really works,” she said.

Whether at Science Storytellers or Language Science for Everyone, Ohio State’s linguistics faculty were visible at Family Science Days. But they don’t just take their show on the road. They also run The Language Pod at COSI Columbus, where they offer visitors many of the same interactive activities that were showcased in Austin.

“At COSI or on the road, the goal is the same: Help people understand all the cool things involved in language science,” Wagner said.