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We got MIT scientists to explain their research to first graders

Learn about plant nanobionics with the first grade class of Brooke East Boston.

by Jika Gonzalez, Sarah Sax, and Shilpi Gupta
Apr 21 2018, 11:54am

Here at the VICE News Tonight climate desk, we have a little trick for getting scientists to tell us about their work in clear and simple terms: We often ask them to explain their projects to us “as though we were first graders.”

There are a couple of reasons for this. One, dozens of complicated but important solutions to climate change are being researched all around the country, but scientists are notoriously bad at explaining their work to non-scientists. And two, that can make it harder to drum up interest in and support for these projects.

Here’s one example: A research group at MIT is looking at a way to turn plants into lights using solar energy. The method is called “plant nanobionics” and involves putting tiny little mechanical parts, a.k.a. nanostructures, into plants to make them able to do things they wouldn't normally do, like produce light.

The hope is that these glowing plants could do more than bring us one step closer to living in a version of Avatar’s Pandora — they could also significantly help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electrical lighting. Lighting currently accounts for about 20 percent of worldwide energy consumption and produces significant carbon emissions as well as e-waste.

It’s pretty cool, and the results could be a significant breakthrough. So to really understand it, we invited the scientists from the MIT lab to tell us about their work and how it might help solve climate change. The catch was they had to explain it to an actual group of first graders.

Watch the results and learn about plant nanobionics along with the first grade class of Brooke East Boston charter school: