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Stop taking all the fun out of science, astronaut pleads

By Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune
Published: September 27, 2015, 5:53am

Your kid likes science.

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

“Kids come out of the chute liking science,” NASA astronaut Mae Jemison said. “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 memorization,” said Jemison, who was the first African-American woman to travel in space when she flew the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992.

Jemison has teamed up with Bayer Corp. to advance science literacy across the United States by emphasizing the importance of hands-on, inquiry-based learning opportunities in public schools. Bayer announced recently that it will provide 1 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 percent of parents and 99 percent of teachers Bayer surveyed said science is an “exciting, creative and interesting subject.” But just 42 percent of teachers call it “exciting, creative and interesting” as it’s currently taught in schools.

It calls to mind 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 un-gettable quantum physics is.”

“Take the element of tungsten and work to memorize 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 memorizing 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 said. 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 said.

“The drills we do, where you’re telling kids to memorize things, don’t actually work. What works is engaging them and letting them do things and discover things.”

If you’re teaching kids about metamorphosis, she said, have them grow a butterfly from a caterpillar. If you’re teaching them about electricity, let them build and wire a flashlight.

“A big part of engaging kids in science is not getting the single, correct answer,” Jemison said. “It’s being willing to work with students to discover the correct answer.”

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

“I remember saying I wanted to be a scientist when I was in kindergarten,” said 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 continued. “And I had parents and an uncle and other people who would take me to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum, 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 urges children and adults to send thank-you messages to mentors who fostered a love of science. Through Oct. 30, you can post a photo, video or written message to SayTkU.com or on social media, with the hashtag SayTkU. Bayer will donate admission to a science museum or other STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) venue for every thank-you message shared.

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

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

“When we go to the hairdresser, we want her to know something about pH balance,” Jemison said with a laugh. “Boy, do we ever want her to know something about pH balance!”

(The Onion could really have some fun with that one.)