The following excerpt from Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists (TED Books, 2013) by Ainissa Ramirez—a science evangelist, material scientist and one of Scientific American’s Google Science Fair judges—has been reproduced with permission from TED Books.
The artist Pablo Picasso once said that all children are born artists and that the trick is to stay that way as an adult. I believe that all children have an inner scientist, and we need to get them in touch with their inner scientist. The way to do this is to improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
Sadly, the kind of expansive thinking, problem solving and curiosity that is inspired by good STEM teaching is taught out of kids because of the emphasis on testing and rote learning. Every year, millions of children enter kindergarten armed with a one-word question: “Why?”
Curious and interested, they unceasingly ask for explanations about everything and anything. Parents and caretakers do their best to come up with answers to the problem at hand, but behind each child’s question is another follow-up question. And another. And another. As trying as this process may be for adults, this constant questioning is a vital activity for children. Their brains are busily creating pathways; they are learning, and they are learning how to learn. They are mini-scientists trying to understand how the world works.
But when these curious creatures start school, sadly, along the way, the unending questions begin to fade away. As a long-time instructor, I’ve become accustomed to this silence in my materials science class, particularly when I am teaching something that is unfamiliar to most students and might be challenging. I’ll pause and ask, “Any questions?” Often, there are none. Students will slouch in their desks and avert their eyes as I try to make eye contact. They cannot show weakness. They want to say something but often second-guess their own curiosity, wondering if asking any question will make them look stupid in front of their classmates.
The components of STEM not only build economies, but also build children’s minds and provide an ecology that is needed for their emotional and intellectual development. STEM supports growth in areas like interacting with others and with one’s surroundings, building concepts, forming connections, engaging in communication, and seeking discovery. These are developmental stages that make children whole, empathetic, resilient, creative, and happy adults.
To get education back on track in America, we need to have a multipronged approach through which we inspire and engage students with STEM.
Make it fun
Making STEM fun is a major ingredient to making it grow in popularity among citizens. If children cannot get STEM in school, we need to bring STEM to them, and bring it to the schoolyard, the malls, and the Web. We need to put fun science and math everywhere. Wherever young people are hanging out, we need to create engaging STEM opportunities. This could be 3-D printers at Starbucks and in the mall; more playful science mobile apps on cell phones (like Angry Birds); and science concepts stealthily embedded in popular music (“She Blinded Me with Science” remix, anyone?). When I was growing up, I tuned in to Mission Impossible and MacGyver. Programming like this can inspire the next generation with fun problem solving, and be a whole lot of fun to watch.
In addition, we need bookmobile-style STEM buses in school parking lots; science museum exhibits at malls, McDonald’s and libraries; inexpensive science kits at bodegas; and local science festivals (with satellites in every neighborhood or free transportation). My dream would be for a recording artist to sing songs about STEM so that these concepts get to children over the airwaves.
Starting early, parents should try to make math fun by peppering in real-world problems when possible. Make it a game! On your way to grandma’s house, figure out how long it will take. When making cookies, use fractions to figure out smaller batches. Encouraging curiosity is the first step to combating innumeracy (that is, math illiteracy). And we need to keep it going as kids grow. Adding math to popular culture for all ages can only help — for instance, television shows like Numb3rs (a former crime drama, aimed at teens and adults), math museums like the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan, and fun books like the Manga Math Mysteries, which capitalizes on the popularity of graphic novels. All of these are pathways to encourage exposure to and an affinity for math. Coupling these efforts with compelling math classes taught by math experts would certainly right this math boat. To get STEM on track, we’ve got to do the math (right).
Emphasize success through failure
In STEM, failure is a fact of life. The whole process of discovery is trial and error. When you innovate, you fail your way to your answer. You make a series of choices that don’t work until you find the one that does. Discoveries are made one failure at a time. One of the basic tenets of design and engineering is that one must fail to succeed. There are whole books written on this topic. In civil engineering, every bridge we’ve traveled across was built upon failed attempts that taught us something (and cost many lives). It was all trial and error. Scientists fail all the time. We just brand it differently. We call it data.
Not just in STEM but in life, too, failure is a fact. You are lucky if you get to learn from it. Dealing with failure in science gives you fortitude and patience that you would be hard-pressed to get anywhere else.
“Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up,” as the Chinese proverb says. Now, I do not wish failure on anyone, but if children have to learn it, I would choose a controlled and safe environment like a STEM class experiment. Here, they learn to try again. STEM provides failure training wheels.
I’ve already noted that, because of its innate rigidity, standardized testing teaches skills that are counter to fundamental STEM skills like problem solving, learning from failure, and developing curiosity. In fact, the very act of standardized testing has the unfortunate side effect of reducing interest in a topic. Motivation studies indicate that the attention to performance (grades, test scores, or any evaluation) actually steer students away from loving a subject.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie Apollo 13 is when a group of engineers has to make a life-saving carbon dioxide scrubber, using random items located on the space module. This requires a problem-solving mindset to get to a solution. I love this scene because, as scary as it is, it portrays the moment engineers live for — when they go from rocket scientist to rock star. And the movie captures the tension and passion of the engineers. Essentially, they had to fit a round peg (the air hose) to a square hole (the square filters) and only had a few binders, zipper-top moon-rock bags, a hose, a pair of socks, a bungee cord, and duct tape. The skills they draw on are, at their very core, STEM skills.
If you think about the type of student who is successful with standardized tests, it would not be a leap to think that standardized testing would not have been able to get Neil Armstrong on the moon. Innovation and invention require a greater intimacy with concepts than standardized tests require and a passionate curiosity that they don’t seem to inspire.
Here are some things Parents can do:
- Participate in local science fairs and festivals.
- Go to your local science museum.
- Take stuff apart with your kids.
- Try the experiment below (not in the book).
Making Friends with Failure: Swinging Buckets of Water
Materials: (This experiment is best done outside)
- A small bucket (like one for the beach)
- A plastic cup
Fill the bucket with water and grab the handle. Now, swing the bucket in a vertical circle with your arm extended above your head, across from you and then back along your side again. Try different speeds and see how slow you can go before you spill the water. Remember to have fun. It is just water. (Getting wet is not failure but data collection.)
Try a more challenging experiment and do the same thing but this time swing water in a plastic cup. Can you swing the cup over your head and back down again without spilling the water? (Hint: hold the cup in your hand with your index finger being closest to the base of the cup. Your hand is upside down to how you would conventionally hold a cup. Now, swing your arms out in a circular path with the cup and see what happens.)
The person swinging the bucket is spared from being doused with water because the force pushing on the water that keeps it in the bucket is greater than gravity. When the bucket is upside down, usually the water in it would fall out, but because of inertia acting on the water, it stays in the bucket. This force of inertia is greater than gravity, which keeps the poor soul swinging the bucket from getting wet. Inertia is the same effect you feel as a passenger when you are squished to one side as a car makes tight corner.
We can do this
The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable; those who are willing to try many combinations before finding the right answer and those who are comfortable with concepts that they can play with in new creative ways. Improving STEM education is vital to human development and economic development. STEM education empowers children to create a better planet than the one they inherit. Nurturing curious, creative problem solvers who can master the art of figuring things out will make them ready for this unknown brave new world.
And that is the best legacy we can possibly leave.