In trying to teach kids about the brain, researchers ended up learning about themselves

When a team of University of Illinois researchers recently had their work published in Frontiers in Pediatrics, they could have considered their efforts to communicate their research to be done. But author Austin Mudd remembered what it was like to be a curious kid, and he wanted to do more. He and his colleagues took the challenge of re-framing their work for a very different audience: the 8-15-year-old readers of Frontiers for Young Minds.

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The research focuses on early-life nutrition and how that influences brain development, using pigs as a human proxy. The team simplified the language from their original article, created some new figures, and tried to boil down their work to the most important points. Then they submitted it for feedback from the Frontiers for Young Minds young reviewers. In this case, that work fell to a group of 5th graders from the University of Memphis Campus School.

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Mudd enjoyed the challenge of writing for a broader audience, but facing the feedback itself had the most lasting impact. “Honestly, the review process for this was much more blunt than what I have received for any other paper,” Mudd said. “People always talk about the mythical ‘reviewer #3’ who is out to get you and has comments that seem overly harsh; to those people I would say they have never had a kid review their paper.”

Some of the most memorable reviews included, “You should not just write facts but you should write more like a story so we would not get bored while we are reading” and “In conclusion, the article was very informational but didn’t hook the reader. When it did, it wasn’t able to keep my attention long.” One reviewer made the very blunt assessment that he was bored by the second page, and suggested adding fun facts.

Mudd considered this all a wakeup call that something he – as a scientist – might believe is inherently interesting may not captivate a young reader. He had to think not just about what kids can read, but also think about how they would visualize what they were reading about.

The young reviewers also got tripped up on the concept of myelination, and the authors worked to come up with an analogy using electrical cords that they felt was not only appropriate, but memorable.

In the end the young reviewers and authors were happy with the final product: What is in Milk? How Nutrition Influences the Developing Brain. One young reviewer even said that the article changed the way he looked at his baby cousin – drinking milk was no longer just about eating, but about growing the brain. Mudd was delighted that the experience of reviewing the manuscript had encouraged the student to look at the world around him in a new way.

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Even now the team of researchers do not consider their work to be done. They are looking forward to the many places – from local schools to youth detention centers – that the Young Minds version of their work can reach what might not have been possible with the original, more technical work.

You can read more about their work and the Young Minds publishing experience here.

– By Amanda Baker

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