Over the weekend I went to a potluck supper with several other families. One of the other moms there was talking to me about maybe helping her with some of her homeschool science curriculum. Of course I got really excited. I love sharing my passion for science with others. I started envisioning all sorts of fun things we could do: isolating banana DNA, spinach leaf chromatography, building models with candy….I was brought back to reality by the hard stares of her teenaged daughters. “I don’t like science”, they said flatly. I tried question them further to find out the root of their disdain, but I didn’t get very far.
Why do people hate science? When I was in grad school people would assume a look of panic on their faces when I told them what I was studying. I would get lots of responses similar to that of those teenage girls, “I’ve never really been good at science” or “Wow, that is really hard. You must be really smart.” I get similar statements these days from my non-majors biology students when they do poorly in my class, “Science really isn’t my thing, I just don’t get it”. This sort of thing drives me crazy! Science is the study of the world around us. It is about understanding who we are, how we work, and how our world works. How can people just cast it off like it is an esoteric and impractical subject beyond comprehension?
If we want to compete in the world of YouTube and Miley Cyrus (I did not watch her performance last night, but my Facebook feed told me more than enough), we have to make science education more interesting and engaging. We have to stop scaring kids away from the sciences. From my own experience I know that most kids start out open to learning about all the world has to offer.Yesterday, as we were running out the door to make it to church on time, I stopped and stood in my driveway with my five year old for several minutes staring at this awesome bug.
As I was putting him (my five year old, not the bug) to bed last night we had a great conversation about red and white blood cells and how white blood cells protect us from bacteria. Young kids don’t fear science. It seems that the fear and disdain comes later. Why? Clearly we are doing something wrong.
The short answer is that scientists have failed to share their passion and spirit of wonder for science with the general public. Think back to your own science courses over the years. I’ve had some great teachers, but I’ve also had some terrible ones. My high school biology course consisted of drawing and memorizing a vast number of plant and animal species and their components. It is a wonder that I had the will to live after that class, much less still loved science. Also, have you read a science textbook lately? Most of them make you want to stab your eyes out (perhaps that’s a little over dramatic, but you get my point).
That said, there is some great work being done. Here are a few resources I want to highlight:
1) Great websites. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has tons of resources for educators on their website. They also have an iPad app that is full of interactive videos and activities for teaching a variety of topics from immunology to bioinformatics. NOVA from PBS also has a great website that includes videos and teaching resources on a wide array of scientific topics, not just life science.
2) Teaching institutes and programs. Many professional scientific organizations offer programs designed to train scientists as teachers.I just went through the The American Society for Microbiology Science Teaching Fellows program. It was a great program aimed at preparing early career professors, post-doctoral scientists, and graduate students for the classroom. I highly recommend the program to anyone thinking about a career in teaching science at the college level.
3) Science writers are doing their part as well. I have read some great books lately that are geared towards a general audience. “The Demon Under the Microscope” by Thomas Hager is a great book on the development of antibiotics and the history of microbiology. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is an amazing book that chronicles the story of Henrietta Lacks and how her cells were taken in the 1950s and used (even still today) for scientific research without her knowledge. Carl Zimmer is another author that has written a vast array of great science books.
We are not going to win over everyone. Haters gonna hate, right? But we need to make a concerted effort, not just to train people for careers in science, but to help all students to gain scientific literacy.