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Writing Scientific Adaptations – Science Journal for Kids

July 2, 2022

It’s been a while and I’m sorry for the delay in this post. I’ve been busy keeping my toes in the teaching scene by co-teaching a marine biology class for the month of June. If you’re interested in how that went, you can check out the post on my travel/project blog here.

On to the subject at hand: writing adaptations (and specifically scientific adaptations)!

First, I think it’s important to address what constitutes an “adaptation”. In the film industry we generally see movies that are “based on” or are “loosely adapted” from books. This usually means that the premise is the same, but the movie may have changed aspects of the characters or minor (sometimes major) plot points. Not sticking to the familiarity of a book can ruin a movie for many viewers, despite knowing that it’s near impossible to portray the finer points of plot and character development in a 2-hr movie.

For scientific research, an “adaptation” requires more attention to detail than the latest blockbuster but isn’t necessarily a “copy” of the original. Remember that the purpose of adapted primary literature is to expose students to original scientific research in a way that is accessible and interesting. It’s our job as writers to make this possible in a way that maintains the scientific validity of the work. See my previous post about Science Journal for Kids, adapted primary literature, and other ways to make scientific research accessible and interesting.

  • A Scientific Adaptation Must:
  • Represent the methods and results correctly.
  • Simplify figures and graphs while retaining meaning.
  • Convey the significance of the research.
  • Have the same organization as an original research paper (abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion). Part of the goal is to expose younger readers to science methodology and this organization is a common construct.
  • Use appropriate scientific jargon without losing information OR remove scientific jargon to enhance understanding. The goal is a thin line between challenging students with new vocabulary and not confusing them.
  • Be written using age-appropriate language and include age appropriate images.
  • A Scientific Adaptation Does NOT have to:
  • Include every single detail of the original research.
  • Contain the same graphs or tables as the original research.
  • Be the same length as the original research.
  • Use the same hook to interest readers (arguably original research uses the importance of the work as a hook, but younger readers aren’t likely to understand the importance without a connection to their own lives).

Here’s my process of creating scientific adaptations:

  • Read the original article and highlight the key points. This usually takes me at least two thorough read-throughs.
  • Identify what reading level the adaptation should be for. The Hemingway App is a great way to check the reading level of your writing. I like to use the app at the end of the adaptation process to help modify my word choice and punctuation so that it matches my goal reading level.
  • Write the methods and results sections. I use key points from the article and decide which ones are the most important to convey, and will maintain the integrity of the original work. It’s okay to leave out small details. It’s especially important in the methods section to be aware of scientific jargon. A little bit is good for students to learn from, and if the adaptation includes a glossary, those words should be included. Try to use simple words if you can. For example, an original article might say “For microbial food safety screening, sample extracts were plated onto E. coli/coliform and Staph Express Petrifilm … Petrifilms were incubated for 24 h and colonies positive for E. coli and S. aureus were enumerated”. This could be simplified by saying, “we tested all the lettuce for two common foodborne pathogens, E. coli and Salmonella.”
  • Identify a figure/graph or two to include in the adaptation. Sometimes the original research papers have simple graphs which are easy to adapt. Sometimes the original graphs and figures are more complex. This means needing to figure out why the original researcher felt it was important to include and what basic message the graph/figure is trying to communicate. If I can’t figure it out (with my PhD and experience in education), it has no business going into an adaptation. Sometimes transferring data from a table into a graph, or modifying a graph to include only the most important information, makes data more palatable to an age-appropriate audience. Doing this in a way that a designer (if you’re lucky enough to work with one) can understand is sometimes more difficult and I’ve found that passing along a simple excel graph or even a napkin drawing is better than trying to describe a figure. Below is an example of a figure from an original research paper and an adapted version of the figure. Notice that we’ve changed the axes labels, removed indicators of significance, removed some of the data, and used an accessible color palette.
  • Write the discussion and introduction. These sections generally require more effort to put together a complete story without compromising the integrity of the message. These sections are usually long and detailed in original research papers, so it’s important to pull out the key points to focus on. Something that has helped me is to read the abstract from the original research paper. Abstracts usually have a rigid structure to them, painting a clear picture of the basic key points. I then re-read the introduction and discussion sections to see what information is related to those basic key points from the abstract, and then use those to construct my adapted introduction and discussion sections. A hook that is age-appropriate and related to students lives is important to include in the introduction section, even if it’s not explicitly stated in the original. Questions are great hooks for students. For example, “Have you ever wondered what astronauts eat when they’re in space? What would they eat if they had to travel all the way to Mars?”
  • Write the abstract. For the adapted abstract I only use what I’ve already adapted, instead of looking back at the original. The adaptation and the original should be fairly similar, but I find it’s easier to create an abstract when I’m already in the headspace of adapted age-appropriate language.
  • Create a glossary of scientific vocabulary that students might not be familiar with, but are important to learn. Below you can see an example of a Glossary. This paper was meant for 6-8th grade readers. You’ll notice that there are research-specific terms like “DNA isolation” that students might not be familiar with, but there are also familiar terms like “crop” that were used in a specific way by the researchers that students might not understand. Both these types of words can help students understand the research better without over-simplifying.
  • Identify other images for the adaptation. For Science Journal for Kids, this includes ideas about a title cartoon and images (diagrams or photos) to include in the introduction. Below you can see a set of photos from an original research paper and to the right we have included one of the same photos in the adaptation. On the bottom row you can see our adaptation also includes a photo of an astronaut with some of the plants they’ve grown in space. When students can see what research looks like, they connect with the material more deeply. My suggestion for a title cartoon was to show a researcher in the International Space Station growing plants. Below on the right is what our designers came up with. Some cartoons are more detailed than others depending on the subject, but the idea is that they visually represent the topic of the article in a clear way.

I think one of the most important steps in the adaptation process, and what makes Science Journal for Kids unique among their peers, is that after a staff writer creates the adaptation it goes back to the original researchers for feedback. What follows is a back and forth editing process that ensures the adaptation maintains scientific integrity equivalent to the original article and ensures that students exposed to the adaptation are interacting with legitimate scientific research.

Hopefully this gave you some insight into the creation of adapted primary literature and left you with some tips and suggestions the next time you’re trying to adapt something! Have questions? Leave it below and I’ll do my best to answer!

** All examples and visuals come from a paper I adapted for Science Journal for Kids.

The original paper: Christina L.M. Khodadad et al. (2020). Microbiological and nutritional analysis of lettuce crops grown on the international space station. Frontiers in Plant Science.

The adapted paper: Christina L.M. Khodadad, Gioia D. Massa and others. Can we grow safe and nutritious food in space? May 2022. Science Journal for Kids.

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