Preschoolers should learn particle physics

The standard model of particle physics is a remarkable theory. Its underpinnings are established as robustly as those of any other field of scientific inquiry. Which is why I would like to make a modest proposal to particle physicists: Start talking to preschoolers about your work. “What?” you say. “Preschoolers? Why would I do that? It’s too early! They won’t understand!” Of course, you should not begin your lesson by writing down the electroweak Lagrangian. The important thing is to introduce the words and the basic concepts. There’s no reason why electrons, protons, atoms, and yes, quarks, shouldn’t be introduced to the very young. The author explains the fundamental constituents of matter to a preschool class. Credit: Karen Gibson Science literacy is like any other kind of literacy. Children need to be regularly exposed to a topic to feel comfortable with it and begin to understand it. Consider the way we teach children to read or to perform arithmetic: Parents and teachers point out words and count and add objects well before the students are ready to fully comprehend those concepts. We all learn by pushing the boundaries of our understanding. Also consider that although particle physics can certainly get complex, its basic goal—to explain what everything is made of—will appeal to preschoolers. Children want to learn about the fundamental constituents of their chair, their lunch, and, of course, themselves. I know firsthand that preschoolers love to discover that electrons pass through the wires in the walls when you turn on the light switch. Naturally, children’s exposure to quarks shouldn’t begin and end in pre-K. Such ideas should be presented regularly throughout every school year. By the time children are in middle school or high school and are ready to comprehend particle physics at a deeper level, the concepts shouldn’t seem scary, off-putting, or “not for me.” Tips for presenting to preschoolers Keep it simple (no jargon!), but respect the audience. Ask questions to hold interest. Incorporate tactile displays to be left with the teacher/classroom. Plan fun activities to drive home the point. Summarize key takeaways at the end. Will preschoolers understand everything? No. Will they develop misunderstandings? Undoubtedly. Is that a problem? Absolutely not. In fact, I would challenge those physicists who have given public lectures to consider how much a member of the general public really comprehends. I would not be surprised if some adults come away with misunderstandings rivaling those of young children who are given a simple, targeted presentation. The most crucial aspect of a successful presentation is to simplify your message. Stick to one or two basic ideas that you want to convey. To hold students’ interest, ask them a lot of questions. Talk for no more than 10 minutes or so, and then engage the class in an activity. Keep it fun, and let your own abilities and interests determine the direction it takes. You could have them sing a song, make up a silly dance, or draw pictures. When they’re finished, regroup and recap what you talked about. Ask the children questions, and let them ask you some. The utility of tactile displays cannot be overstated. My five-year-old son’s Montessori school teaches three- and four-year-olds the squares and cubes of numbers. The teachers use physical squares and cubes made of tiny beads to demonstrate those ideas. To demonstrate how to add four-digit numbers, they use chains of beads to represent ones and tens, and longer bead chains folded into squares and cubes to represent hundreds and thousands. Does my son comprehend the mathematical concepts the same way I do? No, but they are the building blocks that will enable him to do so in the future. When I talk to preschoolers, I use cotton puffs (known as pom-poms in craft stores) of different colors and sizes to demonstrate quarks. The displays are easy and inexpensive to make, and they can be left in the classroom for the teachers and children to look at later. I often bring extra pom-poms and let the children clump some quarks together to make new particles (for whatever reason, a pairing of a top quark and an electron is most popular). Taking the time to talk with children may seem less important than other forms of outreach, but it is essential for the next generation to feel a personal connection to physicists and their research. Children will likely encounter engineers, actuaries, and even a geologist or biologist through school programs or in their communities, but few children have the chance to meet physicists. By being active in your community, you can help build public awareness of the importance of fundamental research and establish connections with young children, who are highly receptive to new ideas and love to learn about the kinds of jobs people have and the kinds of things people do. After I gave a presentation to a class of 15, four students said they had changed their minds and wanted to become physicists or astronomers when they grow up. Apart from helping the children and the field, discussing particle physics with preschoolers can provide you, the physicist, with surprising advantages. It gives you the opportunity to engage with an audience that is likely fresh and different from the ones you encounter in your lab or at a public lecture. It allows you to spend time with people who truly appreciate the very joy of discovery to which physicists so frequently lay claim. Finally, it forces you to really think about what you love about the field and how to simplify what you do—to pare it down to the essentials. Try to have some fun while you do it. Who knows? The children might surprise you. Even better, you might surprise yourself. Karen Gibson obtained her PhD in high-energy particle physics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a member of the CDF experiment at Fermilab, she studied both the production and decay properties of particles containing b quarks. She also participated in the search for weakly interacting massive particles with the LUX experiment. Since retiring from physics research in 2014, she has been spending time with her two sons and talking to the public about particle physics.

The standard model of particle physics is a remarkable theory. Its underpinnings are established as robustly as those of any other field of scientific inquiry. Which is why I would like to make a modest proposal to particle physicists: Start talking to preschoolers about your work.

“What?” you say. “Preschoolers? Why would I do that? It’s too early! They won’t understand!”

Of course, you should not begin your lesson by writing down the electroweak Lagrangian. The important thing is to introduce the words and the basic concepts. There’s no reason why electrons, protons, atoms, and yes, quarks, shouldn’t be introduced to the very young.

Science literacy is like any other kind of literacy. Children need to be regularly exposed to a topic to feel comfortable with it and begin to understand it. Consider the way we teach children to read or to perform arithmetic: Parents and teachers point out words and count and add objects well before the students are ready to fully comprehend those concepts. We all learn by pushing the boundaries of our understanding.

Also consider that although particle physics can certainly get complex, its basic goal—to explain what everything is made of—will appeal to preschoolers. Children want to learn about the fundamental constituents of their chair, their lunch, and, of course, themselves. I know firsthand that preschoolers love to discover that electrons pass through the wires in the walls when you turn on the light switch.

Naturally, children’s exposure to quarks shouldn’t begin and end in pre-K. Such ideas should be presented regularly throughout every school year. By the time children are in middle school or high school and are ready to comprehend particle physics at a deeper level, the concepts shouldn’t seem scary, off-putting, or “not for me.”

Will preschoolers understand everything? No. Will they develop misunderstandings? Undoubtedly. Is that a problem? Absolutely not. In fact, I would challenge those physicists who have given public lectures to consider how much a member of the general public really comprehends. I would not be surprised if some adults come away with misunderstandings rivaling those of young children who are given a simple, targeted presentation.

The most crucial aspect of a successful presentation is to simplify your message. Stick to one or two basic ideas that you want to convey. To hold students’ interest, ask them a lot of questions. Talk for no more than 10 minutes or so, and then engage the class in an activity. Keep it fun, and let your own abilities and interests determine the direction it takes. You could have them sing a song, make up a silly dance, or draw pictures. When they’re finished, regroup and recap what you talked about. Ask the children questions, and let them ask you some.

The utility of tactile displays cannot be overstated. My five-year-old son’s Montessori school teaches three- and four-year-olds the squares and cubes of numbers. The teachers use physical squares and cubes made of tiny beads to demonstrate those ideas. To demonstrate how to add four-digit numbers, they use chains of beads to represent ones and tens, and longer bead chains folded into squares and cubes to represent hundreds and thousands. Does my son comprehend the mathematical concepts the same way I do? No, but they are the building blocks that will enable him to do so in the future.

When I talk to preschoolers, I use cotton puffs (known as pom-poms in craft stores) of different colors and sizes to demonstrate quarks. The displays are easy and inexpensive to make, and they can be left in the classroom for the teachers and children to look at later. I often bring extra pom-poms and let the children clump some quarks together to make new particles (for whatever reason, a pairing of a top quark and an electron is most popular).

Taking the time to talk with children may seem less important than other forms of outreach, but it is essential for the next generation to feel a personal connection to physicists and their research. Children will likely encounter engineers, actuaries, and even a geologist or biologist through school programs or in their communities, but few children have the chance to meet physicists. By being active in your community, you can help build public awareness of the importance of fundamental research and establish connections with young children, who are highly receptive to new ideas and love to learn about the kinds of jobs people have and the kinds of things people do. After I gave a presentation to a class of 15, four students said they had changed their minds and wanted to become physicists or astronomers when they grow up.

Apart from helping the children and the field, discussing particle physics with preschoolers can provide you, the physicist, with surprising advantages. It gives you the opportunity to engage with an audience that is likely fresh and different from the ones you encounter in your lab or at a public lecture. It allows you to spend time with people who truly appreciate the very joy of discovery to which physicists so frequently lay claim. Finally, it forces you to really think about what you love about the field and how to simplify what you do—to pare it down to the essentials. Try to have some fun while you do it. Who knows? The children might surprise you. Even better, you might surprise yourself.

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