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Budding Scientist

Budding Scientist

Everything you always wanted to know about raising science-literate kids

Ask Brian Greene Anything-Really

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Tonight PBS airs the second of its four part series “Fabric of the Cosmos,” (9 pm ET/PT) based on the bestselling book by Columbia physicist and mathematician Brian Greene. He spoke with Budding Scientist about the NOVA series, which aims to demystify such concepts as multiple universes and bring viewers up to date on the frontier discoveries in physics; about the World Science Festival, which he co-founded with his wife Tracy Day in 2008; and about his mission to answer every single science question people send him.

Budding Scientist: For what age range of kids would you recommend “Fabric of the Cosmos”?

Greene: In terms of grasping all that the films have to offer, I think someone in the high school range would be ideal. But I’m always thrilled that younger kids are able to immerse themselves in the ideas and get something out of the programs as well. And that is due at least in part to the power of animation and graphics, which can draw in even a young viewer. Already I’ve gotten an email about the first program from a 6 year old asking a question about black holes.

Is there anything parents can do to help further their children's understanding of the series?

I think the most effective way is not to exert pressure on the kids to watch these shows, because once they turn into something you have to do, something that our teacher requires us to do, then they lose their magic.

What I do with my own kids is I put the program on, and if they want to sit and watch it, great, and if they don’t they don’t. I wasn’t here with my kids last week [when the series debuted], but we had the babysitter put on the first program, and my 4 year old promptly fell asleep, and my 6 year old lasted 15 minutes. And that’s fine. Nine pm is a little late for them. Maybe at some point in the future they’ll catch them at a better time and enjoy them then.

What advice do you have for lay parents who might want to expose their kids to some of the concepts you discuss in your program?

To me science is a story, a dramatic adventure of discovery, and anything that communicates that helps kids see science in a different light. When you’re passionate about something it’s so much easier for your kids to get excited about it. My own dad didn’t finish high school. He was a singer and entertainer, but he was deeply interested in all ideas, and he introduced me to the notion of an atom, and to galaxies. Even though his knowledge is limited, he was excited about it, and that’s how it began.

What kinds of science-related activities do you do with your own kids?

We have these wonderful electronics sets that are so much better than when I was a kid. My son has been building little radios, motors that can make little circular propellers fly into the air. And electronics is a great place to introduce kids to science because they see it all around them in the world and then to be able to make their own is really eye opening. The one that we have, which I think is great, is called Snap Circuits. And even small hands that might have difficulty bending wires can make circuits in this version, because it’s just a snap connection, which really opens the door to kids being able to build things.

We also have books on science projects you can do at home. A lot of these experiments you can do in 15 minutes. Some are the standard ones, but we’ve had fun building helicopters out of paper and a straw and you really get ideas about airfow and how a helicopter works and you don’t need any background as a parent.

The Obama administration is bent on improving science and math education in this country. Do you have thoughts on how to do that?

One big thing is we often teach -- not always -- but we often teach the details of solving equations or parts of the cell or balancing reactions, because they’re important and they’re easy to test. The problem is we don’t often always teach the big ideas that make those details matter: how those details allow you to understand how the universe might have begun or where life might have come from, or how we’re struggling to understand the nature of consciousness. Kids can get these big ideas and in that way realize that science is not a bunch of facts and figures that are set inside a textbook, but rather science is a dynamic, living, breathing undertaking that can connect us to the universe in a far deeper way. And when kids see science in that light they’re more excited to see the details, and it can really transform the experience of learning science into something that’s exciting

The idea that science is dry and removed from daily life seems to have permeated not just our textbooks but our popular culture.

That’s what the World Science Festival aims at. We’re seeking a shift, where science moves from the outskirts to center stage, a stage that has been occupied by art and music, theater and dance and film. Science has a rightful place alongside those elements of culture, because it too is vital to a full and rich life.

I really enjoyed “Cool Jobs,” one of the presentations you had last year that featured young, dynamic scientists engaged in really interesting fields.

We are actually working out the details now to give “Cool Jobs” a nationwide presence. There are scientists who have cool jobs throughout the country and kids in their locality. We’re also working on giving Cool Jobs and the World Science Festival a more robust online presence.


How did science wind up on the outskirts of our culture?

As science has progressed, the language has become ever more esoteric and the details have become ever further removed from everyday life. What you need is a bridge to go from the abstract language to more the familiar everyday experience so you can understand why those abstract details really matter.

What other projects related to science education do you have planned?

We have one coming out where I’m going to be basically answering any question that anybody asks me. We started it just now, [Ask Brian Green Anything] and we’re going to have a more robust version. It helps if you have a human presence that really gives you a sense of all these great ideas in science. If anybody has any questions, they should just send them in because we want to get a whole reservoir of questions, so they can send those in through my Facebook page or through the WSF Web site.

How are you going to have time for that? Is that where the multiple universes come in?

I’m trying to do a small number a day, and if you multiply that by many days, you can do a hundred, and you can do a thousand over a year. Many of the questions people ask are timeless.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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