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Enlighten Me: Using children's books to explain research

It’s a challenge for many scientists to communicate their work to the general public. But for University of Delaware marine scientist Danielle Dixson, it’s a necessary skill.

She does much of her research abroad. And she has to be able to explain to locals why she’s studying the coral reefs or the marine animals in their backyards, especially if she's doing surveys or conducting experiments outdoors.

One way she communicates her work is by creating children’s books.

When Dixson went to Fiji to study the coral reefs, she created videos for adults to help them understand what she was doing there. But she lacked a way to communicate with the local children.

“And the kids are obviously important for future generations, so I started making the books to help the kids what I was doing and why I thought it was important,” said Dixson.

And these children’s books were effective -- when the Fijian kids were given a book about the consequences of litter on marine animals, they immediately responded by picking up the trash on their beaches.

She’s now working on seven books on the challenges that marine life face today -- from ocean acidification to toxic algae.

Some of those topics, like ocean acidification, are pretty heavy concepts. Ocean acidification is what happens when the oceans absorbs an unhealthy amount of carbon dioxide that’s emitted to the atmosphere. Not only is it complex, but this and many other topics don’t lend themselves to happy endings typical in children's stories. Acidification causing coral reefs to dissolve and fish to swim into unsafe areas. And it could even prevent sharks from being able to smell food.

Dixson says that not being able to see the light in the tunnel can make it hard to put a positive note on these stories.

“It’s one of those things where it’s hard to spin it into ‘now everything’s fine’ because it’s really not and we don’t know how to make things better. But I usually try to end those stories with, what can you do to help,” said Dixson.