Photos: James Duncan Davidson
Ainissa Ramirez comes on stage armed with a blowtorch. Well, that sure got everyone’s attention. She promptly uses said blowtorch to straighten a piece of bent piece of wire. Her point: atoms often rearrange usefully to create entirely different types of structures. The Yale associate professor goes on to explain why this matters. A regular smartphone (what fits in the palm of the hand was the size of a washing machine 30 years ago) contains significant materials and technologies. And yet the average smartphone contains 64 elements from the periodic table, many of which are rare earth elements, the “secret sauce” of most technology. There’s a problem: we’re running out of them. And rare earth elements are not significant simply because of their contribution to fancy gadgetry, but also because they will be critical to the Energy 2.0/post-oil movement. The Prius has 20 pounds of rare earth elements in its battery alone, and with all the Prii out there, we’ll need more of these materials, not less.
Catching hold of a phrase that leaders have loved to bandy about in recent years, Ramirez continues: we “shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste.” Not only do we face a short-term challenge to figure out how to recycle these materials, but we need to figure out ways to produce innovative alternatives to them. That, she argues, poses no less than a way to rethink STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] education. “This is our Sputnik moment.”
What she proposes is a new way to recast science education from being about memorizing facts, “a trivial pursuit,” to being about problem-solving and thinking for oneself. We need to move away from focusing on tests to showing kids that it’s ok to learn or to take risks. “Children need to explore and to discover. This is how you innovate; you fail your way to your answer. Scientists fail all the time; we just brand it differently. We call it ‘data.’”
Finally, Ramirez calls for more science mentors who can nurture this experimental mindset in teachers. She mentions her supportive parents, her “science geek” teacher, and the impact of watching the television show 3-2-1 Contact in her youth. She describes the power of seeing an African American scientist presenter. “That was when I realized being black and being a scientist weren’t separate, they were linked,” she says. “I shouldn’t be one of the lone scientists of color in my corner of the world. It should be possible for any inner city girl to be a scientist if she wants. We need to remove as many barriers as possible.”
So much so that she concludes by calling for recording artists to write songs about science. “Instead of ‘she blinded me with science,’ it should be ‘she helped me see with science. She’s a biomedical engineer.’” Ramirez says, to laughter. “All kids have an inner scientist. We must nurture it.”