How do plants and animals make up nature?

Kindergarten children, a few handfuls of researchers, caterpillars and a microscope. This is the recipe they used in Viikki to make new science enthusiasts – and hopefully researchers for the 2020s.

You would expect to have no trouble finding a group of some dozen kindergarten children amid the scholarly silence of Viikki’s Biocentre 3.  Instead, I need a guide to find the room where the children are busy counting leaves of ribwort plantain, infected by powdery mildew, inspecting plant roots with a microscope and weighing the adorably fuzzy larvae of the Glanville Fritillary butterfly.

Bursts of giggles occasionally punctuate the subdued hubbub of voices, and a brave child lets a larva take a walk on her hand. Otherwise, everyone is seated at their tables, fully focused on their tasks: drawing, writing and jotting down numbers with the help of adults. At some intervals the children change work stations and tasks.

The atmosphere in the laboratory next door is similarly reverent. There the children use pipettes on different-coloured liquids, donning mini-sized white lab coats and safety glasses like little professionals. Looks like real science is being made!

Nature is a series of interdependent relations

This is exactly what Academy of Finland Research Fellow Anna-Liisa Laine wants to encourage. The Tiede tulee tarhaan (“Playschool science”) project, planned and implemented by her research group, is a two-hour workshop in which children get to try out scientific work.  In addition, the children can make observations in nature during their regular days and conduct experiments with the help of a themed booklet with hints. Three kindergartens currently participate in the programme.

“In this way the children have an opportunity to find out the many ways in which different species of animals and plants are connected in nature,” explains Laine.

Science for girls

The workshops are clearly fun, but the project has serious aspirations. Laine wants to prove that science is good for both girls and boys.

“Women face discrimination on many levels in the world of science, and women are more likely to abandon a promising career in science. Our workshops seek to break the stereotypes associated with scientists, and to present science as a fun hobby for all ages and genders,” elaborates Laine, whose research group includes both fathers and mothers.

After the two-hour science session, the noisily enthusiastic children and their caretakers leave the workshop. Their next stop is a picnic, while the researchers begin setting up for the next day’s workshop.