What do you get when you mix three small children and a jar of 'empty' pond water?

....Three blank stares, three sets of shuffling feet, and hundreds of unseen organisms waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

Let's be honest: diatoms can be a bit of a hard sell for youngsters, who come to the museum with visions of dinosaurs and big blue whales dancing in their heads. At first glance, a container of white powdery stuff, a jar of slightly scummy water and some photos of strange looking magnified shapes don't collectively say "come over here and look at us! We're cool!".


Part of our efforts as V-Factor volunteer leaders is to lift the veil on the tiny plants we work with to show visitors - children and adults alike - how amazingly COOL they actually are. We want to show people that small is beautiful and that the microscopic world is at least as ecologically important - if not moreso - than the larger creatures we're more easily drawn to. I personally love this challenge, and I think it's part of what makes our role at the museum so important. A static display case showcasing diatoms is unlikely to turn a lot of heads, but a couple of lab-coated diatom enthusiasts with a box full of props can do wonders to spark interest in these magnificent and ecologically important organisms.

Take this morning for example. Among the visitors that came by to see what we were up to was a family with three small, somewhat shy little kids. On first approach they appeared unimpressed by what was on offer, with nothing visually striking to catch their eyes (except Will and I, of course!). But then we started to draw them into the tiny world of diatoms by asking them questions (where does the air come from that you breathe? What interests you more - big things or small things - and why? Did you know that when you go swimming in a river, lake or in the sea and swallow water you're swallowing hundreds of tiny little plants that you can't see?!). We let them hold the props (no, that's not just a jar of empty water...let's look closer!), and helped them use their imaginations to relate more familiar objects and processes to this mysterious micro-world.


Before we knew it, the observations and questions were flowing freely. The little boy liked the elongated diatom shape the best because it looked like a surfboard (all the better for cruising over the waves!). One of the little girls liked the one that looked like a pillow. The third girl immensely enjoyed using the magnifying glass to see all the tiny components of sand, pointing out the various bits and pieces to her parents.


When it came time for Mum and Dad to usher them on to the next exhibits, it was obvious that over the course of 10 minutes, three sets of bored eyes had turned into three sets of mini-microscopes, eager to explore new worlds. I doubt they'll be heading to the gift shop and asking where they can find a cuddly diatom toy, but I suspect they'll give pause the next time they swallow a mouthful of lake water, and maybe when they visit the seaside they'll imagine thousands of tiny photosynthetic surfboards rising and falling with the waves. Does it really get much cooler than that?

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Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith