How to help your child become a scientist

I just read an online column by Christopher Emdin titled “Five Reasons Your Child Won’t Be A Scientist (And What You Can Do About It)”. I’ll summarize some things here and add my own two cents, but I’d encourage you to read the column and the commentary provided by science teachers.

There’s been a bigger push to encourage STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. A recent report from the Department of Commerce announced that STEM jobs grew at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs, and offer higher pay. So why aren’t we creating more scientists?

“[M]uch research in urban science education has proven that youth are more disengaged than ever in STEM-focused classes. Students are bored, don’t find the topics being discussed as engaging, and opt for majors and interests in other disciplines. For those who are engaged in science classes, and are doing well in them, the nature of the instruction and the assessments often reflect more of an ability to memorize facts and sit attentively than truly actually engage in science. For these students, when they are faced with “true science” further along in their academic careers, they are underprepared for the creativity, analytical skills, and curiosity necessary to truly engage and be successful.”

He then goes on to identify five reason why this might be so and how we can help fix this issue. I’m quoting his reasons verbatim and mostly paraphrasing the fixes, followed by a comment or two from myself.

Reason 1) We have instilled the phrase “I’m not good at math or science” into a new generation.

Fix 1) Parents who are involved or interested in STEM topics or careers can influence their children. If we pass on to them the notion that “science is hard,” then they may internalize that message and believe it. Instead, say to them, “Science is exciting,” or “I wish I had a chance to learn science again.” If you didn’t do well in science in school yourself, maybe it was the way it was taught, and you can now work with your child to learn science with them.

Astronomommy comment 1) And why not take that chance to go back and learn science again? Self-study or some college classes are an excellent way to model life-long learning to your child as well.

Reason 2) Science is taught in a way that is opposite to what it truly is.

Fix 2) Frequently, kids who may actually do well in science are weeded out by teaching science in a way that rewards quiet note-taking and memorization and not creative questioners. But science is inquisitive and artistic. So:

When your child consistently comes home with science homework that is mostly comprised of info to memorize, or definitions to write down, remember that this is completely against the way science truly is. When this happens, find out how science is being taught in the school. Make a demand for hands on science, and most importantly, conduct mini-experiments and models at home. There are free resources online that can teach you how to do this.

Astronomommy comment 2) Some of the teacher comments to this article came from teachers who reported having no budget with which to fund hands-on science. A lot of teachers pay for things out of their own pockets, and that is not really sustainable for them. Maybe parents could pool together a fund or help arrange hands-on activities to support the teacher’s efforts. Maybe a community grant could help fund something that would be lasting, like a green house or aquarium or something.

3) Science has lost the “cool factor” and kids have no “science heroes.”

Fix 3) One major way to get young people to like a subject is to make it appealing. For children, it is much more about seeing something as exotic, approachable, and just as cool as anything else. Unfortunately, we have failed in this department. Consequently, a great number of students are turned off to science. GQ magazine attempted to address the cool factor in science a few years ago by having scientists pose with rock stars. This was actually a decent first step, and is one that requires a more long-term focus. Unfortunately, black and white pictures of our “great science minds” that are very rarely women or people of color do not have the cool factor of the more modern heroes that other disciplines promote.

For the parent, it is possible to create science heroes in your home. An Internet search of scientists that are like your child (race, gender, background) and presenting them as heroes goes a long way. Buy a book the scientist has authored. Take a picture with them at a book talk. Make a collage or poster of the scientist and display it in your home. Redefine what the heroes are, and who is cool, and reverse the bleak future of a STEM specialist.

Astronomommy comment 3) I can suggest some candidates for cool astronomy heroes. We are big fans of The Universe in my household, and there are some regular astronomers in that series that are fun. So here’s a short list of potential astronomy heroes (and there are many more possibilities):

Also, maybe science needs its own breakfast cereal. Think about it: Neutrinos. Although you’d have to watch the fiber content — it wouldn’t do very well to have these Neutrinos pass through ordinary matter almost completely unaffected. (If you’re unfamiliar with neutrinos, you can get a brief introduction to these particles here.) The cereal boxes could have scientists and educational materials on the backs. If there’s any cereal company makers out here, please, I want to see Neutrinos on the shelves of my grocery store, so make this happen! :o)

Anyway, on to the next point:

Reason 4) We don’t focus on current issues in the discipline.

Fix 4) In an age where scientific discoveries abound, where ideas are shifting rapidly, kids have no idea what is going on in the world of science. There is a general misconception that everything that there is to know has already been discovered. Consequently, youth see science as old, and not relevant. In response, I suggest that both teachers and parents have to focus on science as it is happening now. Use natural disasters, the energy crisis, and other topics that may seem more in the realm of social studies directly into science at home.

Astronomommy comment 4) Some sources for space news include Space.com, skyandtelescope.com, astronomy.com, and universetoday.com.

5) Good grades in science will not make you a scientist.

Fix 5) For many readers, the title of this piece seems upsetting, or not relevant to their child/student. Many believe that their child is doing well, is learning, and getting great grades. Unfortunately in too many cases, those children who are “doing well” are memorizing, not thinking critically and end up being successful with grades, but unprepared for college level science. The statistics of students who go into college and then leave the discipline over the course of their four years in college is staggering. In too many of these cases, high grades, and science awards in high school do not prepare them for the reality of what it takes to do well in STEM.

Being a scientist, and having success in STEM requires passion, resilience, curiosity, analytical skills, creativity, collaboration, and very often those can be fostered at home as well as in school, but are rarely reflected by merely a good grade in a science class.

Astronomommy comment 5) Um, basically, don’t rely on the education system alone to teach your kids about science. Encourage them at home, find experiments to do together, and try not to squelch their curiosity.

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