When President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate campaign, an initiative to set science education back on track after decades of decline, he noted that, “American 15-year-olds now rank 21st in science” worldwide. For a county that has led the world in science, this is a disturbing statistic. One of the objectives of the program is to excite children about science. As the President said, “We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.”
Since retiring as dinosaur curator at Canada’s premier museum, and professor at the University of Toronto, much of my time is occupied with turning youngsters onto science, using experiments they can do themselves–from building cardboard fishes that swim, to making chicken bones as flexible as rubber. When I began teaching, in England, back in the sixties, students spent most of their time conducting experiments. Imagine 12-year-olds today inoculating Petrie dishes with bacteria to test the effect of Penicillin. I never underestimate what children can achieve once they’re motivated. When visiting classrooms today, I find the same curiosity and joy of discovery, but students often lack innovative guidance.
I spend less time in the classroom now. Instead, I have been showing youngsters what fun science can be through my books, like Make Your Own Dinosaur Out Of Chicken Bones (http://januarymagazine.com/kidsbooks/dino.html). My latest book, Abacus, is an adventure story where the hero is a 12-year-old science fanatic (http://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/vol16/no32/abacus.html). Traveling through time with his apathetic teenage sister, he uses science to get them out of trouble. Readers can repeat his experiments by following instructions at the end of the book — from making a camera out of a tin can to making soap from wood ash. My website includes a science forum for youngsters where they can ask questions and share information, and an ideas page for teachers.
Entertaining youngsters with hands-on experiments has become very popular of late, but the emphasis of so many of these presentations is the “wow” factor, with little or no explanation of the underlying principles being demonstrated. This is certainly not my approach (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90gbpjv1J4 ).
The importance of scientific literacy cannot be overemphasized. As President Obama succinctly said, “It’s about an informed citizenry in an era where many of the problems we face…are scientific problems.”