Science communicators who work with children know they are a great audience. Kids are inquisitive, open-minded and not afraid to ask tough questions — and if you bore them, they will tell you! As part of our outreach plan for Rafts for Biotech, one of the EU-funded research projects we’re in, we decided that we wanted to bring the invisible world of microbiology closer to a young audience.

There were many ideas on the corkboard, but we ended up creating Bacterial Park, an eye-popping sticker album packed with awesome microbes. As the Covid-19 outbreak derailed our printing schedule, we also turned the whole thing into a downloadable activity booklet and colouring exercise, which proved popular with parents, teachers and kids during the pandemic lockdown!

Most of our commissions at Scienseed are for adult-oriented communication materials, so we had plenty to learn and consider when designing the Bacterial Park. First, we had to settle on a goal: What age-groups are appropriate? What prior knowledge can we expect? There are no parents at Scienseed (yet!), so we did what we do well: research.

Published evidence[1] shows that young schoolchildren who know about microbes tend to associate the critters with dirt and disease. Few know that bacteria are also involved in beneficial processes such as food production and medicine. So, we had a plan: to challenge early notions of bacteria as solely harmful creatures.

We chose several examples of non-virulent microbes with super-abilities, both natural and laboratory made. These include fluorescent bacteria, those capable of fermenting yogurt and cheese, some which can survive extreme heat and radiation, and others that create spider silk, as well as some of the harmless, helpful ones that live inside the human body.

While scientists are quite comfortable discussing microscopic creatures they can’t see, we needed to blow up the microbes to visible proportions. We turned every bacterium into a charismatic sticker and placed them all in the centrefold of a fictional safari, Bacterial Park. Inside, brave explorers can find the varied habitats that each microbe calls home, from the Endless Forest to the Secret Lab.

Much work went into planning and producing the booklet’s activities. We combed through education and style guides[2], and many references from children’s books. Although our album is designed for 8 to 12 year-olds — the lower-end matching when microbes are usually introduced in school curriculums — there are several layers of complexity, to satisfy and challenge a variety of audiences.

The booklet combines real microscopy images with illustrations, to furnish children of all ages with visual references for microorganisms. Graded language provides simple and accurate descriptions of each creature and process. While the main task is to discover where in the Park each bacterium will feel at home, there are additional pages with drawing activities and even a fun primer on the field of synthetic biology.

When Bacterial Park was nearly ready, we called up some teachers and scheduled a handful of outreach days to play-test the sticker album at local primary schools. Our touring plans, however, were short-lived. Ironically, it was a virus, SARS-CoV-2, which threw a spanner in the works. As we were ready to hit the printers, every shop and school was shut, so we went back to the drawing board.

“Come on,” we thought, “surely now of all times is a good moment to show kids some microscopic beings?” Parents the world over were suddenly faced with the task of home-schooling their children, many for the first time. We seized the opportunity: Bacterial Park got a shiny new landing page and a formatting makeover. From sticker album, it became a print-at-home activity booklet, translated into four new languages. We also made a black and white version, so the album could double as a colouring book for an even wider age-range and save everybody printer ink.

We’re still planning on visiting those schools, stickers in hand, when all this is over. But for now, we’re satisfied with the wonderful reception that the online Bacterial Park has had.

[1] Ballesteros de la Cruz, M. I., Paños Martínez, E., & Ruiz Gallardo, J. R. (2018). Los microorganismos en la educación primaria: ideas de los alumnos de 8 a 11 años e influencia de los libros de texto. Enseñanza de las ciencias, 36(1), 0079-98.

[2] García Muñoz, Ó. (2014). Lectura fácil: métodos de redacción y evaluación.