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Let’s fix science education: A Q&A with “Save Our Science” author Ainissa Ramirez

AinissaRamirez-Q&AHow is it that science classes have become about memorization and filling in the right circle on a Scantron sheet, rather than about doing hands-on experiments and activities that reveal the wonder of the world around us? It’s a problem that Tyler DeWitt tackled in yesterday’s talk, “Hey science teachers — make it fun.” And it’s a warning bell that Yale professor Ainissa Ramirez has been sounding for a long time.

At TED2012, Ramirez talked about a crisis in education: The problems of our time require creativity and nonlinear thinking, and in the United States, students simply aren’t being prepared to come up with the solutions we’ll need. Now, in her new TED Book Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists, Ramirez shares what she sees as the best way to inspire new learners — a commitment to improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. In the book, Ramirez takes a hard look at the cultural and historical reasons why STEM education has declined in the United States over the last few decades. Her plea: We need to bring it back.

Curious to hear more about what can be done to make STEM fun again, we asked Ramirez a few questions about her new TED Book.

What inspired you to write this book now?

There is a line in the poem On Crime and Punishment by Khalil Gibran that says, “He falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone.”

As a scientist who has walked along this bumpy STEM pipeline, I wanted to leave clues and a map on how to navigate it. Save Our Science is the map. It’s not only for those within the pipeline, but also for the whole STEM ecosystem. Everyone feels helpless in this education crisis. Save Our Science is a manifesto to recharge and empower everyone. In it, I am acting as an on-the-ground Secretary of Education, attempting to help all Americans feel empowered to make change. This book spells out how we — teachers, parents, citizens, politicians — can use all the pieces that are working and arrange them in a way that will make the US a leader in STEM education again. It includes actions that individuals and groups can take to get the education system back on track.

Why is STEM education so vital?

First, most of the jobs of the 21st century will require people to be comfortable with science and math — not only the content and information, but the mindset that comes from these fields, such as trial-and-error and the skill of asking good questions.

Second, all the focus on testing is not allowing children to be children. That is, there are few opportunities for kids to explore something inspired by their curiosity, and few chances to get their hands dirty. Some might say that American childhood is under attack and with it all the key human development steps needed to make whole and healthy adults. STEM is like a training camp for key skills like encouraging curiosity and patience, and making friends with failure.

It has been shown that the ability to self-regulate — in other words, patience — is a better marker for success than IQ. There’s the famous marshmallow experiment, where children are given a marshmallow that they can eat now, or they’d get two if they wait 15 minutes. It was found that those who waited (less than 30% of them) actually did better in school. In this microwave era, STEM teaches children patience; you can’t rush an experiment. For example, try to quickly make rock candy from sugary water. You can’t! It takes time and requires patience. But it is so worth it! Learning to wait is a muscle that is lacking but important for human development. STEM provides human skills and virtues that will make our children successful down the road.

What key changes can we all make to improve STEM education?

Save Our Science suggests action items everyone can do to make STEM more fun and engaging. It could be a shop owner installing a 3D printer; or a mechanic having bike-repair nights in the neighborhood; or restaurants showing the chemistry of cooking. Parents can take stuff apart with their kids and learn together how things work. Show science videos at malls, in movie previews and at the dentist’s office. Of course, policymakers could learn more about what really works from other countries. The bottom line is, if we lather engaging STEM opportunities everywhere, we are going to change the cultural thinking about science.

I’ve seen it in my own town. I was having carpets cleaned in my home for Thanksgiving. The cleaning guy immediately recognized me from my science videos that play on the local cable channel in town. Our conversation moved from chitchat about the weather to an intense discussion of science. He talked about what he learned on the video, and then we started actually coming up with ideas for another video. He emphatically made suggestions. But that is not the point; the point is that he got it. He got that science was for him, and he could demand more, inspired by his curiosity. Science was part of his language now, and we were having a real conversation about real issues. Making science accessible and engaging is the first step to individual ownership of the concepts, and is the first step to making real change in STEM education.

How do you personally make STEM education more fun?

I am a STEM evangelist and try to make it fun in a number of ways. If I am at a cocktail party, I’m that person who will pull out a party trick. In my case, it is a small piece of memory wire that I store my wallet. This material changes its shape when you heat it with a match. If you want to see adults show childlike enthusiasm, this wire does it every time. After I show the wire demo, then I wait. Some people will be hooked and will ask what is going on. I’ll make analogies between atoms to members of a marching band, where each individual makes a small change, but the whole is a pronounced change. You can see this wire in action in this small TED-Ed video here.

As for younger people, at Yale I created a science lecture series for kids called Science Saturdays. Here, children get to learn about science from experts in an age-appropriate but not-dumbed-down way.

For a broader reach, I created a series of short science videos call Material Marvels, which have been seen all over the globe. I try to make science appealing with outlandish demonstrations (that often need a blowtorch), or make silly analogies — like that solar cells are sandwiches of silicon. These videos are playing on local television in my town, and I am surprised by their impact. When I go to the barbershop, gas station, or even at church, occasionally someone will come up to me to say they watched these videos. One woman recently said to me, “Hey, I saw you on TV doing science. I loved it, not because I know you, but because you made it fun. And I am an English major!” That is a huge testimonial to the impact of making science enjoyable and putting it where folks have access to it. People will come if you build it, and bring science to them in a way that is palatable.

In my classroom, I do some of the same outlandish demonstrations, but I also add lots of group discovery. Students learn better from their peers, so I’ll start a lesson and have an in-class assignment that they will do together. This is a less threatening approach for learning and, I’ve been told by my students, is fun.

Also, I’m an author. Right now I’m writing a book about American football through a science lens, called Newton’s Football, for Random House. With my collaborator, Allen St. John, we are using football as a model to describe the hot topics in science like chaos theory, the physics of football helmets, concussions, and other nuggets in a fun, big-think, non-preachy way. I think football fans will like a new way to look at the game, and non-football fans will gain a new point of entry to the game.

All in all, my joy is learning new things and translating what I’ve learned so that other people understand it too. In essence, I am acting as a science conduit and translate science so that it seems relevant to everyone. That is my mission, anyway.

Save Our Science is available for the Kindle and Nook, as well as through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone. A subscription costs $4.99 a month, and is an all-you-can-read buffet.