It sounds easy, but Dixson said simplifying science is actually pretty daunting, particularly when the audience is young children.
“I think the real challenge is making sure that you keep the science but have a background story that doesn’t distract from the science - that can be much more difficult. And that’s just trial and error really,” Dixson said.
Research papers can contain complicated and academic language. Danielle Dixson knows that.
But the assistant professor at the University of Delaware wants her research to be more accessible to the masses. To do so, she takes her papers and makes children's books out of them.
"It’s great that we know more information or found something interesting," she said. "But it needs to be communicated to more than just people who read scientific papers, which is not the majority."
Dixson started writing children's books while she was doing post-doctorate work in Fiji in 2012. It was her way of communicating with locals there about her work, in addition to making videos for adults.
The books were well received, she said.
"Even though the Fijians are very tied to the ocean, they don’t have a huge amount of marine education in their educational system," she said. "I was trying to get the community more engaged in what I was doing, why I was doing the research, and most importantly how the information gained would impact the lives of the community.
The idea behind the books
Dr. Danielle Dixson has had a vested interest in communicating science through storybooks ever since she went to Fiji to study coral reefs.
While there, she noticed that the children in the village she was living had a very limited understanding of the ocean, even though this was their backyard. To help communicate the research she was conducting, she developed a few storybooks to teach the kids the value of the research their reefs were supporting. In addition, after having kids explain that the "ocean takes the rubbish away", she wrote a book about the problems with trash in the sea. The day after reading the story to the kids, they had organized their own beach clean-up, demonstrating how powerful stories can be learning.
Dixson and her team research marine conservation and how important behaviors of marine animals are affected when humans cause ocean conditions to change. As a professor at UD, Dixson teaches undergraduates and graduate students the importance of marine conservation, weaving her research into the courses she has developed. "Animal behavior has been not incorporated in a lot of the conservation initiatives as much as it could be or should be," she said. "I think it’s important that we can get information on how changing conditions will affect behavior and how the behavioral changes may cascade into other research areas."
Subject matter for her books include sharks, ocean acidification and the delicate balance between the ocean inhabitants on a coral reef. The inspiration for all of her books come from research she has conducted.
"The added benefit of creating children's books is that they are read to kids by adults. So information about the science in the story is being conveyed to both adults and children. The more kids understand about what’s happening, the more they can make changes in their own lives or make it a priority for them," she said. “It’s really important when you do science, that you’re able to communicate it to the general public. That lets people know what you’re doing and why it’s important and why it affects them.”
Sunset in Fiji by Danielle Dixson