by Ronald N. Germain, M.D., Ph.D.
NIAID, NIH, Bethesda
A few years ago, when my son David was in first grade, I bought him a book from Cold Spring Harbor Press entitled Cell Wars. Together we read this amusing, informative, and wonderfully illustrated book about how your white blood cells (the "Defender") do battle against bacteria and viruses. He thought it was so neat that he asked if I would tell his class about lymphocytes, macrophages, and neutrophils, the stars of the book. I agreed and contacted his teacher, to see if she was interested in my giving a presentation to the whole first grade. She thought it was a great idea, but when we discussed what I would to, she warned me that it was extremely difficult to hold the children's attention for more than about five minutes. I told her it would take me about 20 minutes to show some slides I planned to make from illustrations in the book and to talk about the immune system and how it helps fight disease. Again I was warned that this was asking too much from such young children.
Having seen that my son found the book fascinating, and how much he enjoyed the video about T cells, especially "killer T cells' that Polly Matzinger produced, I decided that the teachers didn't fully appreciate how interesting the topic could be for kids. On the appointed day, I showed up at the school in my (pristine) white lab coat. I brought along a few props as well – some moldy bread and some well-sealed bacterial plates that had been left on a kitchen counter for a few days. I began by showing everyone some fresh bread and then the moldy bread and telling them that the moldy bread was "you – without your immune system." In other words, that you were just food for other living things if your immune system didn't hold them at bay! This got everyone's attention very fast. With David's help as a projectionist, I then spend nearly 20 minutes giving a slide show using the illustrations from Cell Wars. I had a few questions during the talk, but no fidgeting, no wandering around, and no staring at the ceiling. Afterwards we held a question and answer period. Nearly every child in the room had something to ask about getting sick, getting vaccinated, about how infections spread, even how killer cells work by sacrificing a few of your own cells that become infected to save many thousands of other cells. After trying to explain how T cells get educated or "go to school" in the thymus to learn how to attack only infected cells and not good cells, one little girl raised her hand, said that she had diabetes, and asked if I thought that this had anything to do with T cells. My answer was that her lymphocyte didn't learn their lessons very well in school!
After nearly 45 minutes with no let-up in sight and no evidence of flagging interest, the teachers finally decided THEY had had enough and needed to get on with the day's lessons. The class thanked me for my presentation, and I packed up my plates, moldy bread, and slides and left. A few days later I received a package from school via my son. The entire class had written me thank-you notes, most of which were colorfully illustrated with quite accurate reproductions of the images of the lymphocytes, macrophages, and neutrophils that I had talked about. It was f joy to get these letters and the presentation I had made was the talk of the class for some time.
I have made similar presentations to grade school children at various levels since then and always have an excellent response. The questions are perceptive, the kids relate the information to their own experience, and they think learning about how the immune system works I "cool!" The bottom line is that with a little preparation on your own part, it is really very easy to get youngsters interested in science. At the very least it helps most of them develop an early appreciation for being scientifically literate; for a few, it opens their eyes to the exciting things you can discover as a scientist. We can all help foster both of these ends by volunteering even a little time at local schools or civic organizations – your enthusiasm can be infectious, in the best sense of the word!