Let's face it, we as a society have a limited, even poor, image of scientists and engineers. For instance, just ask the average fifth grader to draw his or her perception of a scientist and you'll most likely be given a depiction of a white male with wild Einstein-like hair, eccentric habits and attired in a lab coat, coke-bottle spectacles while working in an ivory tower laboratory; some might even describe him as "mad."
Science's poor public image goes even deeper. In a survey conducted in 2007 by the Museum of Science and Industry in which 1,304 American adults were asked if they could name a scientist, 44 percent of the respondents (approximately 9 out of 20) could not. And of those who did respond to the question, the top three answers were: Bill Gates, Al Gore and Albert Einstein.
Perhaps even more disturbing, a seminal study by C. Mosely and D. Norris, reported in 1999 in the journal Science and Children, suggests that teachers themselves often have a distorted view of scientists, thereby helping to pass these biases on to their students.
In the study, Moseley and Norris examined the drawings and verbal impressions of 550 current and soon-to-be K-8 teachers about scientists. Although the researchers found that study participants described scientists as intelligent, hardworking and theoretical, many also described them as impersonal, boring and nerdy. Participants also generally portrayed scientists as stern, bespectacled older white men with unfashionable clothes and unkempt hair, and who worked alone.
A teaching student in the study, after reflecting on her drawings and verbal comments, said, these perceptions are "supplied to us by the movie industry and the media. I remember many times as a child watching cartoons or movies that portrayed a scientist much the same as mentioned above. It may seem like an unfair generalization, but then stereotypes usually are."
The result of all this could be that many children may not wish to become scientists or engineers because they view the practitioners as dull and never having any fun, and their work lacking relevance to everyday life, implies Tina Jarvis, a researcher in the School of Education at Britain's Leicester University where she studies stereotypes about scientists.
These examples give us a glimpse into why interest in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) is waning among students, but the citations also beg the question: Where are the heroes and role models in science and engineering?
In our celebrity-driven society where youngsters are readily enraptured by Lindsay Lohan's latest public debacle or Kobe Bryant's masterful performances on the basketball court, the work and achievements of scientists and engineers often go unnoticed by kids, or is deemed uncool and imposing.
If we wonder why there are no heroes for children to emulate in science and engineering, consider this: As a society, we don't celebrate these fields, we don't provide students with adequate interaction with role models in such professions, and we fail to effectively demonstrate to kids how important science and engineering are - namely their roles in saving lives, curing disease, keeping us safe and making our lives richer each day.
If we hope to increase the number our students entering STEM fields, thereby ensuring that America remains globally competitive in technological innovation, these deficiencies need to be turned around - and soon.
The inaugural 2010 USA Science$ Engineering Festival (www.usasciencefestival.org), a major national event taking place in October to attract and motivate the next generation of young innovators, is aimed at dealing with these issues.
In this undertaking, we've identified more than 50 noted scientists and engineers (dubbed Nifty Fifty), and 20 Nobel Laureates, in the country who will serve as role models and "heroes" in their respective fields through exciting, meaningful and personal interaction with students, schools, teachers and the public.
Our premise in the Festival is simple: The heroes and role models in science and engineering are frequently right in our communities and often willing to serve. And with proper guidance about communicating about their work and careers to kids, scientists and engineers can be powerful role models!
I know this first-hand from the inaugural Science & Engineering Festival we conducted last year in San Diego in which we recruited noted researchers and other professionals from the San Diego region to serve as speakers and role models in our Nifty Fifty program. Like most of us, scientists and engineers often don't instinctively know how to talk about themselves and their work to kids, so some of the researchers' initial talks at schools last year were not perfect. But as we gave speakers better guidance, and located more scientists and engineers who had a passion for outreaching to kids and communicating not only through words but via exciting hands-on, interactive activities, we began to really reach and inspire students in meaningful ways.
This year, Festival scientists and engineers -- representing fields ranging from astrophysics and computer engineering to the medicine and science entrepreneurship - will speak at schools in the Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland areas about their work as part of Nifty Fifty. In addition, selected Nobel Laureates (as part of our Lunch With a Laureate series) will interact with audiences over brownbag lunches in these regions.
We often forget that researchers, no matter how lofty their professional status, are first and foremost, human beings who, as youngsters, often went through the same challenges, joys and experiences as most kids while growing up and preparing for a career.
For instance one of our participating Nobel Laureates, Robert Grubbs (who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005) was born in poor rural Kentucky in the house his father built.
Nifty Fifty speaker Alfredo Quinones will tell students his remarkable story of arriving to the U.S. as a migrant worker and persevering to becoming a top brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins.
Astrophysicists Herman White of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Larry Gladney of the University of Pennsylvania and Sylvester James Gates from the University of Maryland will also serve as Nifty Fifty speakers, regaling their young audiences with insight into how atoms are smashed and the physics behind the birth of the universe. Known collectively as the Cosmic Trio, the three African American researchers are well-known for their efforts in inspiring young minorities toward science.
In addition, J. Craig Venter, the founder, president and chairman of the Venter Institute, and a member of the USA Science & Engineering Festival Advisory Board, is an example of another role model - specifically, an innovator and entrepreneur in science who continues to use his fortune and fame to make a difference. Venter and his institute have been making headlines recently for their promising efforts to produce efficient synthetic biofuels - a breakthrough which could yield better energy results than the traditional biofuels ethanol and butanol.
In recognition of his past contributions to science, Venter was last year presented with the prestigious National Medal of Science, receiving it from President Obama in a White House ceremony.
What we as business professionals, decision-makers, teachers, parents and citizens must do is take it as a responsibility to expose our youth to as many positive, interactive encounters with science and diverse scientists as possible. As astronaut Sally Ride says, these encounters - in and outside the classroom -- have a remarkable way of demonstrating to students the vast array of exciting careers that use science, math and technology, and how science relates to other disciplines and everyday life.
Through the month-long USA Science & Engineering Festival -- a series of events culminating in a two-day Expo on the National Mall in Washington, DC on October 23-24 - we hope to take a major step in this direction by engaging students and their families. Expected to attract up to a half a million people, the Festival includes more than 1,000 interactive exhibits and activities by leading scientific institutions and organizations, and give visitors the chance to meet leading scientists and engineers up-close-and-personal.
In putting the situation into perspective, I cite a quote from Shirley Ann Jackson, the outspoken president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (and herself a theoretical physicist), who said: "If you know there needs to be change, and you know there is a lot of ground to cover, you don't waste time."
Our challenge is clear: Let's begin now to do our part to help kids find their science and engineering heroes!