Retired astronaut wants school science to reach a new orbit

How US schools are putting the fun back into science

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 5:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 5:30am

Despite the subject's reputation, and the fact that schools treat it like the class where fun goes to die, children are more excited about science, on average, than maths, English and social studies, according to a new report.

"Kids come out of the chute liking science," retired Nasa astronaut Mae Jemison says. "They ask, 'How come? Why? What's this?' They pick up stuff to examine it. We might not call that science, but it's discovering the world around us."

Then something happens.

"Once we get them in school, we turn science from discovery and hands-on to something you're supposed to do through rote memorisation," says Jemison, who was the first African-American woman to travel in space when she flew the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992.

Jemison has teamed up with Bayer Corp to advance science literacy across the US by emphasising the importance of hands-on, inquiry-based learning opportunities in public schools. Bayer announced recently that it will provide one million hands-on science experiences for kids by 2020.

In advance of the announcement, Bayer commissioned a survey of teachers and educators about children's relationship to science.

Ninety-seven per cent of parents and 99 per cent of teachers Bayer surveyed said science is an "exciting, creative and interesting subject". But just 42 per cent of teachers call it "exciting, creative and interesting" as it's currently taught in schools.

I'm reminded of that old Onion article, "National Science Foundation: Science Hard," which reported findings from a satirical conference "featuring symposia on how hard the Earth sciences are, how confusing medical science is, and how ridiculously ungettable quantum physics is".

"Take the element of tungsten and work to memorise its place in the periodic table, its atomic symbol, its atomic number and weight, what it looks like, where it's found, and its uses to humanity, if any," a faux chemist said in the Onion piece.

"Now, imagine memorising the other 100-plus elements making up the periodic table.

"You'd have to be, like, some kind of total brain to do that."

It's funny because it's kind of true.

But science doesn't have to be that way, Jemison says. Especially in the elementary school years.

"When you have teachers saying, 'I don't have enough time for hands-on activities', we need to rethink the way we do education," Jemison says. "The drills we do, where you're telling kids to memorise things, don't actually work. What works is engaging them and letting them do things and discover things."

If you're teaching children about metamorphosis, she says, have them grow a butterfly from a caterpillar. If you're teaching them about electricity, let them build and wire a torch.

"A big part of engaging kids in science is not getting the single, correct answer," Jemison says. "It's being willing to work with students to discover the correct answer."

Parents play a big role in that discovery process, she says.

"I remember saying I wanted to be a scientist when I was in kindergarten," says Jemison, who grew up in Chicago. "I also wanted to be a fashion designer, an architect and a few other things along the way, but science never went away.

"I had great teachers," she continues. "And I had parents and an uncle and other people who would take me to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum and Brookfield Zoo.

"Those experiences show you the world all around you and show you the range of science careers."

As part of Bayer's campaign, the company is urging children and adults to send thank-you messages to mentors who fostered a love of science. Up to October 30, they can post a photo, video or written message to or on social media, with the hashtag #SayTkU.

"The whole idea is to keep kids engaged and not let them think science is something other folks do," Jemison says. "Science is around us everywhere."

Farming is science. Cooking is science. Even styling hair, she notes, involves science.

"When we go to the hairdresser, we want her to know something about pH balance," Jemison laughs. "Boy, do we ever want her to know something about pH balance!"

Tribune News Service