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“Did you know,” I said to the eight-year-old boy in a Red Sox cap, “that about 50 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from the ocean by way of the tiny, drifting marine animals and plants called phytoplankton? So for every second breath you take, thank the plankton!”

He greeted me with a blank stare.

I tried again. “Have you ever seen the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants?”

“Of course,” he said, seeming intrigued.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve heard of his arch nemesis, Plankton…”

Did either of these questions make you curious about plankton? Those were two of the most successful lures I used to attract young and old visitors to the booth “Making the Invisible Visible: The Secret, Bizarre, and Amazing World of Plankton” at the Cambridge Science Festival’s Science Carnival on Saturday, April 13.

As terrestrial beings, feeling a connection with microscopic creatures that live in the ocean is challenging, especially if you don’t study the ocean or live near one. My aim in running this booth was to bridge this gap by exposing the watery realm of plankton through a live microscope demonstration, awesome video footage, and a crafts activity to design your own Super Plankton refrigerator magnet. Just as many visitors went home with a new appreciation for plankton and perhaps a Super Plankton magnet in hand, I went home with some great experience at putting my communications skills to the test.

The other motivation for this festival booth was including science outreach in the activities of the Broader Impacts Group (BIG), a student-run organization based at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and MIT. Formed in Spring 2012, BIG has produced a variety of science communication workshops, but organizing and executing a booth at the Cambridge Science Festival was our debut in further refining these communication skills in a practical setting.

This event provided a great opportunity to apply some of the skills cultivated in BIG workshops in areas as diverse as public speaking, blogging, and radio broadcasting. These workshops have featured acclaimed communication professionals, including journalist and media producer Ari Daniel Shapiro, science writer John Bohannon, and communications professional Linda Pogue.

Seven graduate students from the MIT/WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Joint Program and MIT Microbiology helped with the festival booth. While we were all armed with an arsenal of scientific knowledge about plankton, most of us had no prior experience with public outreach. No one really knew what they were getting into, and all of a sudden, after the carnival kickoff at noon, our booth was inundated with hoards of kids and their families.

It quickly became clear what tactics worked, like referencing the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants for kids, and what did not. Was that a glimmer of understanding in someone’s eyes? Because the audience was so diverse in age, education, and culture, the message had to be tailored to make it relevant for each new visitor to the booth.

One particularly effective way to connect with kids was using the GIANTmicrobes® plush toys of Copepod, Krill, Algae, Sea Sparkle, and Red Tide to illustrate food chain interactions. These toys made plankton more approachable because they could be handled (and cuddled) and had human-like personalities. This made it easy to direct a kid to the microscope and say, “Here’s a real copepod and look how small it actually is!”

The Science Carnival left me exhausted yet tremendously fulfilled. The instant feedback I experienced of someone “getting” the concept I was trying to teach and then hopefully going home with a greater understanding of our oceans was so rewarding, yet absent in my day-to-day life as a researcher. Although I had lost a full Saturday from research (and then some from all the organizing), it felt as though I had gained something bigger. The day was also a “test-drive” of the science communications skills I had been honing through lab meetings, conferences, workshops, and even family gatherings. Kids provided the perfect practice audience because they were receptive, yet forced me to distill my message down to the basics and really think about why it was important.

Despite our limited backgrounds in public outreach, it seemed like the BIG team pulled it off — one woman even gave us her business card and invited us to participate in an environmental high school career fair. Hopefully, this will be BIG’s first step towards more education and outreach events.