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How to Better Teach Kids Science? Just Ask Them

Neuroscientist Bob Knight started a kid-reviewed, kid-targeted online journal to inspire the next generation of researchers on their own terms.

By Gemma Tarlach
Aug 28, 2014 5:00 AMNov 14, 2019 8:25 PM
Bob Knight kid-reviewed, kid-targeted online journal, Frontiers for Young Minds, now focuses on neuroscience but will expand to include medicine, astronomy and other areas of research. | Peter DaSilva


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Kids say the darndest things when they’re reviewing a neuroscience study up for publication.

That’s what Bob Knight discovered when, almost on a whim, he started a kid-reviewed online journal — and found his passion.

Knight ran the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, for a decade and was the founding editor of the online, open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. His pages-long list of published studies is the envy of any academic, but Knight still has the straight-talking style and self-deprecating wit of a kid who grew up on the blue-collar Jersey shore.

It’s Knight’s combination of endless intellectual curiosity and down-to-earth realism that led him to start Frontiers for Young Minds in 2013. He wanted to inspire the next generation of researchers, but on their own terms.

Like the rest of the Frontiers series, the journal is online and open access, but Frontiers for Young Minds is reviewed for, and aimed toward, children. Although initially evaluated by an adult member of the editorial staff, each study posted at the site must also make it past a “kid reviewer” age 8 to 15.

Originally recruiting the reviewers from English-speaking children of neuroscientists around the world, Frontiers is now focused on expanding. A seventh-grade inner-city class recently reviewed a study on the neuroscience of dance, for example, and Knight’s staff will roll out Spanish translations of articles in 2015. There’s even a Chinese version in the works. The journal is also broadening its coverage beyond the study of the brain.

Knight took some time recently to talk to Discover about brains, baloney and pop star Beyonce — and how Frontiers fits into it all.

At the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley, Knight demonstrates an electroencephalogram and eye-tracking equipment to students from Berkeley’s Summer Institute for the Gifted.  | Peter DaSilva

Discover: What drew you to neuroscience in the first place?

Knight: I came to neuroscience through clinical neurology, which studies diseases of the nervous system. I like areas dealing with connectivity, and I liked the detective story aspect of it: to go into a room, take a patient’s history and have a good idea of what was going on.

Where did the idea for a kid-reviewed, kid-targeted journal come from?

K: Six years ago I was in a meeting about the future direction of the review process for a journal. I half-jokingly said, “Why don’t we have kids review it?” The idea stuck in my head.

So how does the whole process work? The researcher submits a paper through kids.frontiersin.org, and it’s assigned to a kid reviewer? 

K: There’s a pre-step there: We look at it first. We don’t want to control structure, but we want to make sure there’s a clear hypothesis. We want the same thing for the kid reviewers. We want them to understand the scientific method, and to ask whether the author had a hypothesis and conducted an experiment that allowed them to test the hypothesis with a yes or no answer to a question. The review comes in [from the kid] and that’s it. There’s no back and forth. 

How tough are the kid reviewers?

K: The kid reviewers are brutal! A 14-year-old boy reviewed a paper on the relationship between the brain’s reward system and Facebook likes and concluded: “The research is interesting, but it’s not obvious how this knowledge will help with anything.” The researcher went back and changed the paper to make its value clearer. In the usual journal review process, a couple of people review the paper and send it back with comments, and the author grumbles and then enters a discussion: “OK, I’ll change this but not that.” But in our process, whatever the kid says to do, the author has to do, or it doesn’t get published.

Researchers today are arguably more time-crunched than ever. Why should they bother getting involved with a journal aimed at children rather than their peers?

K: It’s their duty. They need to be involved in education. They need to be teaching the next generation of researchers, or we’ll go backward and in 30 years, we’ll all be pushing handcarts again.

And for young scientists, those early in their careers, there is an immediate payoff. When you come up for tenure, you have to show your work in three areas: research, teaching and public service. This hits all three.

And what’s been researchers’ response to Frontiers?

K: Look, if I started a new journal and sent out a request for associate editors, maybe 10 percent of the people I contacted would say yes. With this, I contacted 52 people and 47 said yes. They’re interested.

How big of a staff does Frontiers have?

K: I’m the chief editor, Fred Fenter is the managing editor and Noah Gray calls himself the “engagement editor” — he’s our social media guy. We have 15 areas [within neuroscience], and each area has three associate editors. The number of kid reviewers is growing all the time. It’s important to me that we recruit reviewers from the whole spectrum of society, so we’re starting outreach programs, and our Berkeley students have really stepped up to participate and be mentors.

Is Frontiers publishing original research, or has it appeared elsewhere already?

K: The papers have appeared elsewhere. There are two kinds of papers we review: a paper you just published and now want to do a kid-friendly version of, or a review article that draws on previous research. We’re working on a system where, when a researcher gets an acceptance email for a peer-reviewed journal, they also get a note saying we’d like you to consider submitting a kid-friendly version.

Scientists have a duty to inspire the next generation of researchers, says Knight, shown here explaining the workings of an MRI with the help of a young volunteer.  | Peter DaSilva

All of this sounds time-intensive and fairly expensive. You recently secured $480,000 in funding over the next two years from the Jacobs Foundation and are pursuing additional philanthropic grants, but have you considered charging for the site or finding a corporate sponsor?

K: I want to make sure nobody ever commercializes this. I want it to be open source. I want it to be free for everyone. A lot of people involved in online projects will say it’s all kumbaya, we’ll do it because we love the world. Baloney. They’ll do it because they want to make zillions of dollars. We’re not going to slap ads up on the site. But our budget to do this is about $1.2 million a year. That’s a lot of dough. To keep it open access, I’ve got to line up that money. I’d like to stick to government agencies and foundations, but if some big corporation offers me $500,000, I’m not going to turn it down. But I’m not going to put ads for them on the site, either.

OK, so we’re not talking from a marketing perspective but, from an audience perspective, among children, who is Frontiers’ prime demographic?

K: You know, I was just at the D.C. science festival. It was incredible. There were 35,000 attendees, and I think 10 to 12 was the average age. That’s the right age. It’s becoming clear to me that this is not a high school science club journal. Frontiers is a middle school journal to get kids engaged in science, to show them how fun it can be. It’s about analytical thinking and understanding the scientific method, which will help them figure things out in their lives, not just in science. It’s about using more analytical thinking, not just emotion-based.

Do you think it’s a basic lack of analytical thinking that is causing Americans to fall further behind other countries in science literacy, or is it how we’re teaching children? Or is it perhaps how issues such as climate change and evolution have been politicized?

K: I think first you have to make clear that there’s a difference between ignorance and intelligence. I was raised in Laurence Harbor, N.J., and I think I was only the second person from there to go to college, though the kids there were just as smart and creative as the ones I come across here [in Berkeley]. The reason I’m doing [Frontiers] is because education was the ticket for me — it’s the only thing that makes up for a lack of socioeconomic access.

Telling kids you have to believe in climate change, or you have to believe in evolution, is not going to go anywhere. You have to let them figure it out, to explore the world, to test their ideas. That’s the only way you’re going to get change. Trying to change things from the top down never works.

So, would you include Frontiers as part of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) trend in education?

K: This STEM thing that everyone’s always talking about and touting is all top-down. People are telling kids do this, do that. I’ve never heard anybody say, “Maybe the kids should tell us how they want to be educated.”Frontiers is about putting kids in control. We’re not there yet, but in the future I’d eventually like kids to be the ones guiding the material and driving the content.

Aside from STEM, another big trend now in science education is citizen science: projects, often crowdsourced, in which non-scientists, including children, contribute to research through collecting data or analyzing it. Do you see Frontiers evolving a citizen science component?

K: I don’t know. I’m about to set up a parallel editorial board of kids. If they tell me, “Hey, we want to crowdsource something,” fine, but it’s got to come from them. I don’t want to tell them what to do.

A common criticism of the gulf between researchers and the public in science understanding and interest is that many researchers aren’t able to explain their work in terms the average American can understand or find relevance in. Do you think that’s a fair critique?

K: I think most scientists can talk about what they’re doing and why it’s important if you let them. But I think most journalists don’t give them that chance. They think scientists are these weird, geeky people. And kids have the role models that the press promotes. I heard that the No. 1 role model in the world is Beyonce — give me a break. If that’s true, we’re in the most shallow end of the pool.

Where will Frontiers go from here?

K: When I first came up with the idea, we were going to call it Frontiers in Neuroscience for Young Minds. But we took out the neuroscience part. That was a calculated decision. We will be expanding: The next three areas we’re exploring are medicine, which is huge — everything from asthma to pimples to obesity; and astronomy, which is a natural — kids wonder what’s up in the skies; and environmental science. We’re definitely going to branch out. But we want to grow it organically. We want to be a portal for good information for kids. You have to go through us and you have to go through our scientists, but once it’s vetted, we post it.

So, is Frontiers going to be the answer to motivating kids to want to emulate scientists rather than pop stars?

K: Is it just a cool website, or is it going to change things long term? I don’t know the answer to that. We have to wait and see. Things aren’t going to change in five or six years. It’s going to be a generation. But I would like to think Frontiers is a small building block leading to that change. 

[This article originally appeared in print as "The Kids Are All Right."]

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