Teaching Kids About Biology

by Elizabeth J. Kovacs, Ph.D.
Loyola University, Chicago

Ever since my daughter, Cathy, could speak I have been teaching her biology. Now that she is in grade school, I have "taken the show on the road" and have presented "lectures" on topics including "All about blood" (in February, National Heart Month), "Bones are us" (before Halloween), "Lungs at work," "Why is smoking bad for you," and "What is asthma?" (at the beginning of hayfever season).

I always wear my baseball cap with the imprint of a brain on it (from the Brainstorms Catalog, Skokie, Illinois) and sometimes my Chromosomes T shirt from a recent American Society for Cell Biology meeting. This outfit holds their attention for only less than a minute, but is part of the act.

For the Blood "lecture," I made a handout (filling in the blanks kept the children's attention) and brought in several props. These included a dozen flashlights (some of which were borrowed from my graduate students and technician) to hold behind your hand and see red, a microscope with a slide of a blood smear slide (one that we use in our medical histology class), and a home made item that Cathy called a "macroscope." It was just a shoe box with flashlight inside, a small hole on the top to look through and a large hole at one the end big enough to stick your hand through. The box was used to show the red (blood) in the children's hand (in case it wasn't dark enough in the classroom to see anything when holding the flashlight behind their hands. Cathy made a poster with drawings of blood cells and wrote next to each picture what the cells did: red cells carry oxygen, white cells eat germs, and platelets help blood clot.

For the presentations on lungs, I had a handout with a diagram of the parts of the lung and the words describing the parts: trachea = breathing tube, bronchi and bronchioles = branches of trees (which connect the trachea to alveoli) and alveoli = grapes on a stem. If you turn the drawing upside down, it looks like a tree with a trunk (trachea), branches (bronchi and bronchioles), and leaves (alveoli). I borrowed a plastic model of lungs from a colleague in Pulmonary Medicine (which one kid thought was real) and turned it upside down as well

For the asthma part, I gave each child a set of 10 plastic soda straws. The children could breath comfortably through the 10 straws together, but after pulling them out one by one, they got an impression of what it feels like when the bronchioles constrict during an asthmatic attack. For additional filler, I asked a friend of Cathy's with asthma to bring in her inhaler and demonstrate how she uses it

The key to keeping their attention is to keep them busy and to explain things in simply. This has been made much easier with the publication of several childrens biology books such as the set of books by Dr. Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph including Cell Wars (see below).

Why do I do it? It's fun and rewarding. Besides, who knows, maybe I'll inspire an Einstein.

Helpful hints for teaching young children:

  1. use handouts that they can take home (kids are used to having handouts and they serve as a great time stretcher). Click here for examples of my handouts.
  2. use the blackboard to draw things and spell out words that you want them to learn.
  3. use props (try to have enough for groups of 2 - 4 kids if possible).
  4. ask them about what they know about the topic. (eg., Do you know anyone who smokes? How much blood do you think you have in your body?)
  5. enjoy being with them.

Helpful books for teaching

Young children:

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