Friday, June 30, 2006


Science for Kids

Last night I took The Boy to the public library for a presentation for kids about dinosaurs. The guy who did the presentation was a natural showman, and we both had a great time, but it was striking to see such a different presentation style.

To illustrate the earth being bombarded by comets and suchlike during the precambrian era, he had a kid come up front and don a helmet. Then, he pummeled the kid’s head with balloons, each balloon representing a meteorite. Everybody laughed. He brought fossils to pass around, which went over okay, but got the biggest reaction with...the parents out there know where I’m going with this...fossilized dinosaur poop. “Eeeww!” all around, and lots of laughter.

The show was very participatory, with plenty of props. He did a bit with a raccoon puppet (don’t ask) that brought down the house, and he must have called a half-dozen volunteers during the 40 minute gig. (TB raised his hand, but didn’t get chosen. The place was packed, so it didn’t come across as rejection.) He also threw in plenty of jokes for the parents, including a clever one about how they don’t believe in dinosaurs in Kansas, just to keep everybody happy.

The climax of the show involved two HUGE inflatable dinosaurs, brought to life quickly with electric pumps. There’s just something about a ten-foot-tall dinosaur staring you in the face that gets your attention.

As he concluded, he asked the kids how many of them want to be scientists when they grow up, and they responded as if he’d asked how many want dessert.

Yes, it was sensationalistic, and funny, and short, and entertaining, and it didn’t ask much of the kids. But they paid attention, and TB thought it was just about the coolest thing going. This wasn’t exactly his first introduction to dinosaurs; he corrects me when I get dinosaurs’ names wrong (“No, Daddy, that’s a diplodocus, not a brontosaurus,”), and doesn’t have any self-consciousness about it. To him, it’s entirely normal and natural that a five-year-old would be fluent in Latin names of prehistoric reptiles.

I know science will get harder as he gets older, but I don’t want him to lose the sense that it’s cool, and exciting, and liking it doesn’t make you a nerd.

Science-y readers: what piqued and kept your interest in science as a kid?

My parents were OBSESSED with space; we used to watch shuttle launches (I remember Challenger, and I was born in 1983, people) and those Apollo documentaries with cool footage of Walter Cronkite getting all choked up. I watched (and then read) The Right Stuff, and the first movie my dad (as opposed to mom) ever took us kids to see in a theater was Apollo 13. When I was four, we also recorded the movie SpaceCamp off HBO, which nobody except myself, my parents, and another grad student friend can remember. I watched it so often that to this day my mother can quote entire scenes, I went to SpaceCamp twice in high school -- in general, this movie had an effect on me that was probably *too* large. And we had all these "How Things Work"-type kids' books around so I could look up why we had seasons or why we only saw one side of the moon. I was also very interested in dinosaurs and in knowing all the proper names, and again, I would look stuff up if I needed a reminder. Okay, reading over this now it just seems like I was a born nerd, so maybe that has something to do with it! But I think it really has something to do with the idea, that my parents started with and is now just second nature to me, that if I wanted to learn about something, I should find a library book that explained it.

And now I'm becoming an astronomer ;).
When I was 11, I stayed for a week with my aunt and uncle. Their son was a couple of years older than me, and I thought he was the coolest person on Earth. He had just gotten a chemistry set and we spent the week together playing at chemistry. After that, chemistry was the only thing I wanted to do. I remember being annoyed that I would have to wait until EIGHTH grade to have chemistry class! I just made full professor in an R1 chemistry department, so I can definitely say that those chemistry sets really work!
My Dad was definitely an introverted and stoic sort, but he got excited about building things, doing science experiments, "hacking" things to make them work better, etc. His enthusiasm rubbed off on me, I guess.

I was also lucky enough to have a few friends nearby who were similarly interested in science. I think a child's peer group influences his/her interests (and overall development) a whole lot more than most of us (parents) want to acknowledge.
As a child growing up in Kansas (where only the Board of Education members don't believe in evolution), I got a really amazing science education. They send star biology students into elementary schools to do anatomy lessons, my junior high life sciences teacher was willing to stay after class to answer harder questions not answered in the lesson, and the high school Bio and AP Bio classes were so intense you needed the instructors' permission to take them. (We spent a day dissecting cadavers at a chiropractic college!) By the time I was 16, all the really cool smart kids were taking AP Bio, dissecting cats, and memorizing the Krebs cycle while smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. I got a job as a technician in a biochem lab and started doing my own experiments at age 17.

So why am I not a biochemist now? I found out from working at labs in other places that it's not always this wonderful environment of teamwork and exciting discovery. In Cleveland, I was stuck in an awful pathology lab getting minimum wage to split cells for a bunch of researchers who wouldn't look at me. I know it's a helluva reason to give up a lifelong dream, but I was capricious in those days.

Just remember: Kansas science teachers are very brave and wonderful people. Don't hold them accountable for the Board of Ed's stupidity.

And hooray for good science presentations!
Funny -- I don't have any sort of motivational/epiphany story. My parents were middle class (dad a civil engineer, mom a nurse), but they did nothing at home actively promoting learning or science. All I knew about my Dad's job was that he managed a bunch of engineers who designed ships.
Yet they wound up producing 2 kids both with PhDs in science/engineering/math related topics.

For whatever reason I was always just doing it on my own. I remember sitting on my swingset at age 6 trying to figure out exactly what multiplication was. Even my science projects were done by myself -- in hindsight, I was doing some dangerous things with chemistry and electricity in the 7th grade that my parents SHOULD have been concerned about (note to self: don't let kids bring sulfuric acid home from school).

Second thought - maybe my parents unintentionally created an environment that implicitly supported such activities. My mom did take me to the hospital a lot, where I liked to check out the equipment, and I did like to read my dad's trade magazines (even made collages/posters - bizarre).
I used to watch lots of nature programming on TV and from that latched onto the idea of being a scientist. When I was seven my father bought me a book called "The Scientific Eye." It was my favorite book that year. I also always loved the science type stuff we did in class: raising caterpillars, magnetism experiments. Once I made rain in a bottle and presented it to my second grade class. I always made up crazy science games too. When I was 8, I made my 5 year old sister my 'lab assistant' when we played chemists. We spent hours mixing dish soap and water and keeping careful records. Another game I played was "pond ecologists." My friend and I took samples of water, muck, and algae from around her pond. We gathered leaves and rocks. We caught frogs and water bugs. I was always pretending to be a scientist and telling anyone who asked that I was going to be a geneticist when I grew up.

As far as I was concerned, if it was science, it had to be cool.
I think I read a book about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor and somehow decided science/medicine was cool when I was really young (I read way above my age level).

Then, and I can't believe no one has said this - I watched Mr Wizard and Bill Nye the science guy ALL the time. And Nova and every other science show. And National Geographic, we got all of those and I read them like crazy.

I also got a microscope. It was pretty crappy - but I LOVED it.

I'm still a scientist (though moving into the more educational/administrative side of things now) and I credit all of those things (and good teachers in high school) with keeping me interested enough to major in Bio and go to grad school in Bio.

Oh, also, there was a local science museum - and going there, like you did with The Boy, was also influential. They had astronaut ice cream - too cool!
Two words, one name, a legendary inspiration: Jacques Cousteau. I watched every National Geographic Cousteau special there was, my parents bought me every one of the books he published, I read his autobiography and even wrote to him. Here was the guy who *invented* the aqualung in occupied WWII France, who bought an old minesweeper and refitted it for oceanographic exploration, who was talking about presentation and the global ecosystem in the 1950s, who traveled the world with a small cadre of guys with cool accents and dove on Mycenean wrecks and South Pacific atolls. I was the first volunteer (at the age of 11) at the regional giant-tank aquarium--even before they opened the doors to the public. I didn't wind up an oceanographer, but I think Cousteau might have been the first person who interested me in recovering, understanding, and telling the stories of the past. Which definitely *is* my profession.

I still get choked up when I hear the brass fanfare that was the old "National Geographic" TV theme.
My parents never let us watch anything but PBS when we were children. Now I'm going for my Ph.D. in social psychology (however sciency you believe that to be) and he's gonna be an astrophysicist. Thanks, PBS!
I, like a few of the others, don't have an epiphany moment to share (heck, I wanted to be an engineer until I realized one day that engineering was much more boring than physiology). However, I do have two things: 1) My dad. He isn't a scientist (he sells cameras), but since before I was born he always read Science News and Scientific American, talked about what he read at the dinner table, and always left the magazines on the table. 2) Good teachers. Many of my high school (and college) teachers emphasized the experimental nature of science, rather than the memorization heavy focus of many teachers, and I loved doing experiments. One biology teacher in high school let me stay after school and try to isolate bacterial culture strains for a few months. Looking back I did horrible work, but it was great fun.

Oh, and chemistry sets and other toys designed to encourage me to like science as a kid? Bah. I almost universally disliked them.
The answers to this question will probably continue to vary dramatically. I remember disliking science most of all subjects in elementary school, because all we did was workbook pages. Science reform is great, but I think getting kids excited about the ideas, like the dinosaur guy did, is key too. Parents who encourage and give their children the opportunity to explore these things in different venues might (?) also be a common factor. I ended up sticking with science because I loved camping, and animals, as nebulous as that sounds.

He might be a little young for it, but if he gets any TV time you might consider letting The Boy watch "Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman" on PBS. It's a new show and I think it's great; gives kids a chance to do experiments and design things. Plus there's a cartoon dog. Good stuff.
I'm glad betty mentioned Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye. I loved watching Mr. Wizard, and I have a Bill Nye t-shirt that I happily wear around the lab. (Look it up on Amazon).

Other than that, I remember cool demonstrations in science class all through the years and my parents always encouraged us to do well in school.
Some reasons I continue to be a Dorky-Science-Chick:

1. When I was little, it was still safe to let kids run around outside all day, and that was just what I did. I spent just about every waking moment tromping around in the woods behind our neighborhood, getting muddy. It was fantastic.

2. I distinctly remember taking the toaster apart at 5 to figure out how it worked.

3. My mom's a nurse. Dinner conversations routinely revolved around bodily functions.

4. Bill Nye and Mr. Wizard! Hours of entertainment.

5. I get to ask questions that no one can answer, and figure it out for myself. And I get paid to do this.

My sisters are a nurse and a veterinarian, so it may be partly genetic, but I still think what I do is beyond fascinating and cool.
My grandparents took my brothers and I rock-hunting every year and I had cans of rocks all over my room. I was very interested in geology, fossils, and the possibility of finding valuable gemstones. :o )

My father was obsessed with marine biology. We had about six aquariums in our house and used to go to the fish store every other week or so to check out new fish. He also considered Jacques Cousteau to be some kind of god. If Calypso was on TV, we were all commanded to stay home and watch.
Like many folks here I think I got it from my Dad. The closest to concrete, root-cause experiences would be frequent trips to the Smithsonian and air shows. Dad made it fun to wonder what dinosaurs were like, where rocks came from, and why airplanes flew. I was probably between 3 and 7 for most of those trips. The other formative experience, when I was 10 or 11, was getting a Commodore-64 and getting addicted to games like Ultima IV, then hacking into them to make them better, i.e., more favorable to me. This engendered a competence for problem-solving which made science rewarding.

I think the important thing, though, is not science per se, but simply enjoying using your brain and learning about the world. Kids should have lots of experiences of that sort and the rest will come-- whether they become biochemists, historians, or some other form of.... academic :)

As an aside I wonder if next generations' blogs will reflect such a predominance of Dad (specifically, as opposed to Mom or the Parental Unit) in the Geek Psyche. I hope not!
As a child, I adored Public Television. 321 Contact! Reading Rainbow! Square One (the best! Especially the Mathnet portion). Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego! NOVA was one of my favorite TV shows - though I got mad when they started doing more nature-y topics rather than what I really liked - SPACE! My first book of my very own was NASA's My First Book of Space (note that when they say the sun will explode some day, they fail to mention that that day is not within our lifetimes. nightmares!) PBS seems to have given up on the 6 and up braket in terms of their educational programing, which is a real shame because I really appreciated it as a child in the 80's and early 90's.

Annie - I totally remember SpaceCamp. My siblings and I watched it about a gazillion times.

I loved playing with erector sets and legos - and it was awesome that, being a girl, my parents were cool with that. Because a lot of my friends (who tended to be girls) didn't like those toys. And neither did their parents. I remember when my sister decided she wanted to be a paleontologist. In Kindergarten. Then in first grade, a classmate told her she was going to hell because she believes in the dinosaurs. But my sister still wanted to be a paleontologist. Now she studies linguistics.

I'm all for building things and taking them apart toys - they allow for a lot of creativity!

We visited museums as children - not just the art and history museums, but also planetariums and science centers. Which were totally cool. I definitely recommend the St Louis one, and in particular the part where you have to try to construct the Arch out of padded blocks.

Bill Nye the Science Guy was another good show.

I also appreciated a lot of books about different subjects. Unfortunately, no one in my peer group really liked science... and I definitely had to deal with prejudice from teachers and my classmates about being good at math and science. Especially math. So despite the fact that so many people are focusing on boys lagging behind in education... just because girls like me can ignore such prejudices, they definitely exist. My (female) pre-algebra teacher told me that girls can't do math so I shouldn't even try. No one should ever be told that X group can't do X subject, so they shouldn't try.

That said... I had a horrible science experience in college. It was a horrible environment that everyone appeared to be miserable in. I am a much happier person in languages and literatures - though that doesn't mean I can't do math or science. It just means I prefer my novels.

And I apologize for such a long comment...
I think it was my father. He was a scientist and so I got positive reinforcement that scientists were normal people, not Crazy Power-Mad Psychopaths. (Not that I'd have absorbed much of that stereotype anyway, as we didn't have a television until I was 10 or so.)

We always had lots of books around, and none of them were off limits as long as our hands were clean.

I had chemistry sets etc, but they didn't really help much because even now (as a science teacher) I find chemistry a very non-obvious field. Mix two chemicals, the colour changes, but how exactly do I know that this equation describes what just happened? Physics and ecology are much easier, because you can actually see what's happening...

Most importantly, dad took the time to encourage my curiosity. Nature walks, chats about science, visiting museums, weekly trips to the library... I think kids are naturally curious, until it gets beaten out of them by bad teachers, tired parents, and cynical peers (encouraged by mass media). If you keep the curiosity alive, he _will_ be interested in how the world works, which means science (among other things).
Many very interesting comments. The following article went around the Internet a few months back and really resonated with me:

As a teen, I was proud of my ability to make improvised fireworks and that sort of thing. My friends and I were all skilled in this way, and we actively "researched" ways to improve our destructive creations.

Of course, that was only part of the picture. As a high school student in the early 1980's, I was privileged to have an Apple II+ computer at home (and access at school as well), and spent many hours playing with that, learning rudimentary programming, and so forth.

When I became an undergraduate at 17, at first I was basically drifting without a rudder. My part-time jobs helped me to realize that it would be better to make a living using my brain rather than my back, but it took me a while to settle on a math major. One of my math instructors at that time had a great influence on me; I was about to take the same path that he had taken (philosophy major), and he helped me to understand the dismal prospects for employment that awaited philosophy majors. At the same time I was getting interested in my math courses, as they offered things that I found appealing: they were challenging, there was very little bullshit (in contrast, some of my philosophy and other courses seemed to focus exclusively on bullshit), and it didn't matter in math class if I was a conservative and the professor was a rabid Marxist: math was math, politics never entered the picture.

I now have two sons younger than five. I suppose as a parent I will strive to prevent my sons from acquiring the same level of knowledge of improvised explosives-- er, home-made fireworks-- that I had as a teen. I don't know if they will follow my footsteps into the hard sciences or not, but I will do my best to cultivate their interests in the sciences in other ways.

I don't want to err in the same way my parents did-- providing zero guidance in re: choosing an undergraduate major-- but I don't want to make the choices for them, either. I suppose if my sons choose to major in something that I don't approve of (assuming they attend college in the first place), I guess I would at least try to make sure they had good reasons for doing so: a passion for the subject, enough aptitude to find success in that field, etc. Failing that, I could always do what one of my friend's fathers did: at my friend's 18th birthday party, his dad came up to him, looked at his watch, and said "Time to go, son."
Like Kathleen, I spent most of my childhood wading through swamps, hauling garter snakes into the house, and so on. (I still wade through swamps, but I get paid to do it now.) Mom was very tolerant about things like that, and also spent a lot of time taking us to nature preserves and museums.

We had the Time-Life Nature Library in the house, too. I started with the pictures, and then graduated to the text as I got older. I was also a fan of Zoom!, 3-2-1-Contact, and Big Blue Marble, and Cosmos was a must-watch at our house when it first aired.

My lab works with middle school kids a lot, and many of them are very interested in science...they will spend hours carefully taking measurements or doing experiments. (Many of these kids are from disadvantaged backgrounds, so it's not a "privileged kids only" phenomenon.)

Hey, DD. Was your question about how to get kids interested in science, or about how to keep people interested in science after they hit 16?
My Dad was an OB who would answer questions like why is the sky blue, why are the trees green, where is Orion and how do you find the center of the universe if it is infinite. Add in weekly adventures with Mr. Wizard and I was hooked. I discovered the wonders of the library early and found that I could always find a book if I wanted to learn about something. Wow, I was totally a nerd. Years later, I still am. And earned my PhD in chemistry. The apple doesn't fall so far from the tree;)
A really great magazine that is science oriented but written for kids is MUSE magazine. My neighbors weren't into sciece so they passed their copies onto me (I was about 10). This mag is great! They interwove history, literature, current events, urban legends, and pretty much everthing else with science. I was very much the artist as a child, but this magazine really helped me discover the science aspect of art, for example photography is art and science in a symbiotic relationship. It really helped me realize that EVERYTHING is science. Also Ranger Rick Magazine, I was given a subscription when I was toddler by my grandparents. Spending time outdoors and having resources to understand nature is a wonderful gift. I don't intend to study science in college, but I'm glad to have an appreciation and an interest in it. The world is less confusing and more beautiful with an understanding of science.
My mother was a doctor and my dad was an electrical engineer. I became a medical technologist which is pretty much the perfect marriage of the two fields. My mom brought home sheep blood agar plates for us to culture the bacteria on our skin and would let us use her (very high quality) microscope - but we had to prove we could focus it properly without messing it up before we could look at pond water(or onion skin or whatever)- and my dad let me help him put together electronic parts for circuit boards. He taught me how to solder. I spent lots of time hiking by myself in the summer (6-8 hours at a time).

I didn't get great grades in college (chemisty and calculus were my waterloo) but I was too in love with biology to quit. And going to UC Davis was perfect as they have about 50 different ways to major in Biology there. Worked in the teaching greenhouse, did research in a vet lab - for me, the hands on was the key. And since I loved the subject so much, I ended up teaching it - my student love my stories of the various ways pathogens are out to get us all (hehehe!) Microbiologist are always the heros in my stories. Very dramatic.
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