Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Science is Cool

This is a post that's been rolling around in my head for a while now and it may take more than one post to do it justice, but here's the main principle. It seems like science is becoming popular.

Think about it. There's a mainstream tv show about science (other than the forensics & medical shows) in CBS' The Big Bang Theory, They Might Be Giants just released an album called "Here Comes Science," and the Carl Sagan/Stephen Hawking Auto-Tune fan music video "A Glorious Dawn" has over 1.6 million hits on YouTube. (I'm sure there are more examples too. Simon?)

So let me first state the obvious. This is great. Science as a "cool" thing is fantastic. Some fields have always been cool to kids and they don't have problems with recruitment and retention, but speaking as someone from a field that struggles with recruitment and retention, visibility is important. And cool is important to kids. Much as we (as academics) may have a hard time with that. This is why when you ask a first grader what they want to be when they grow up, no one replies with "computer scientist." They might say "scientist" (the general type with the lab coat and test tubes) but more likely they want to be a doctor or a firefighter or a ballerina. As they grow older the dreams become more realistic, but generally stay anchored within a core set of possibilities which generally don't include mechanical engineer, computer scientist or
astrophysicist. By having bits and pieces of science enter the popular realm, we are condoning science as a valid career and a good option for high school, college, and beyond. Those are my initial thoughts.

But then there's the other side of me. The more infantile side. This is the side that, at some level has always been a scientist. I don't remember my science escapades in elementary school, but in middle school I had many. I dissected salmon and collected salmon sperm for class, leading me to a decision to become a reconstructive plastic surgeon (lasting from 7th-9th grades). I participated in Science Olympiad at the state and national levels: taking tests, engineering devices, and winning medals. I participated in the state science fair and went to my dad's lab three times a week to monitor and count seeds for my germination study. In high school, I made a cake to look like a cell and took college biology. In college, well, I was a math and computer science major. Not only that, but I was one of the first computer science majors EVER from Berea College. Along with my friends Bethany and Sarah we were the first people with Independent Majors in Computer Science. It just so happened that all of us were female. Here we are with our fabulous mentor and advisor Jan Pearce at graduation.

In short, I've always been a science and math geek, regardless of public opinion. So now that the tide's turning, I feel a little cheated.

In some ways, I know that people will realize that I was ahead of the trend. Obviously I was. I'm in the fifth year of my Ph.D. program. But part of me feels like the girl who's been listening to a band for four years and the band has just been discovered by "the people who discover bands." I want to wear a t-shirt: "I liked science before science was cool" But I'll settle for just going back and reading "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" for the fifteenth time instead.


Simon said...

Science IS cool. I would suggest xkcd as another example of science in the mainstream. It's not always science-related, and the science is hardly in-depth, but it's referenced way more often than in most places, and I would guess most of the poeple who read the comic are not in science. You're the only one I know who is, and almost all my friends read it.

I wonder if the problem with 'marketing' science is that people who are good at it often do not become grade-school teachers. I'm basing this entirely on my own experience. I had ONE good science teacher. One was so bad he was fired. My otherwise very good school district was dismal in science. Having said that, this is a problem in all subjects because teachers aren't paid well enough. But now I feel I've gone off-topic. Science should be much more widely appreciated. Then it would get more funding and research would go faster and we could cure cancer. And clone people. Oh I think I just found another marketing problem...

Katie said...

I think that you were one of the first people I know who I knew as a non-science person who was entranced by science. Who honestly did think science WAS cool, of your own accord, which is AWESOME! I guess I don't think of xkcd as mainstream, but it is getting there. I think my friends are an abnormal sample and so I feel skewed.

I think that it's a shame that people who are good at it often don't become grade school teachers. OR, more so middle school teachers. Middle school is a definite turning point, especially for girls. Girls come into middle school equally interested in science and math careers/fields as boys and leave much less so. So the teachers there are critical. I think I've told you personally about my experiences with that. I think this is where we can bring in West Wing. Sam said it right, "...education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet."

Simon said...

Sam is always right.

And yes, I think middle school teachers have a nice window in which to influence girls to engage with math and science rather than leaving it to the boys. I definitely felt that was an area girls were not expected to do that well in - it wasn't overt sexism, just sort of silently permeating. Same thing in tech class, which I liked and was pretty good at, but was completely and totally ignored in by my (male) teachers.

Katie said...

I never took tech class because I took band. And if you took band, you couldn't take anything else, cause you HAD to take gym. So that was that. Anytime any kid gets ignored or overlooked that's not good though...