It's funny what inspires one toward a career in science or engineering.
Kary Mullins who earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993, says it was the experience of growing up in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina that did it for him. There, in a more simple and idyllic time than today, he had the freedom to build and launch his own rockets, and to dream while exploring the biodiversity in the woods, the swamp and the orchards near his home.
Inspiration and the chance to discover are important for all of us. Like with Kary Mullins, these experiences plant the seeds for success in life. However, at a time when we desperately need more young minds to prepare for, and succeed in, challenging fields of technological innovation, I believe we in the public and private sectors are not providing our secondary education teachers and schools with the necessary help to excite and motivate our children toward fields such as science and engineering.
Teaching is a tough job -- and getting tougher. Put aside crowded classrooms, declining budgets and other obstacles that face educators, teachers today must also contend with meeting stringent curriculum and testing standards in the classroom. This environment allows limited time for instruction, compelling teachers to constantly "teach for the test" which takes them away from more personal, interactive instruction that excite kids about learning, especially in more traditionally challenging subjects such as science and math. When teaching and learning become impersonal and premised solely on textbooks, lectures and memorization of facts and figures, students tune out. My two daughters can attest to that from their high school classes.
Even though they attended a highly-rated private school with the very best teachers, my daughters are sometimes perplexed after learning multiple facts and figures in science class in preparation for an AP (Advanced Placement) exam how this information actually applied to their everyday lives. Both my daughters started out in school interested in science but are now planning a career in art and history respectively after finishing college. They feel that they would have perhaps retained their interest in science if such classes in high school had been made more interactive, hands-on and connected to real life.
The fact that the U.S. is not producing sufficient numbers of scientists and engineers to remain competitive in a growing global environment speaks, in many ways, to the experiences of my two daughters and other kids like them. But it also suggest the question: How can we help turn this trend around?
First, the use of standards in schools must be put in perspective. Yes, standards are important, but as David Cohen, professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Michigan, concludes in his book Learning Policy: When State Education Reform Works, academic standards and tests without meaningful real-world context rarely influence change in the directions and to the extent hoped.
As Dr. Cohen strongly suggests, standards work best when they incorporate exploration and discovery. And students learn science best by doing it, not just by reading about it. I believe that the spirit of science is further enhanced when the student, under the guidance of the teacher, discovers principles from hands-on experiments (not canned laboratory periods) and is allowed to make his or her own mistakes toward this end. This not only builds self-confidence, it also enhances creativity, critical thinking and persistence which can be applied to other aspects of life as well.
In other words, students must "connect " with science on a personal level. Unfortunately, in K-12 science instruction today, the chief classroom resource remains the textbook, and the most prevalent instructional activity in high school science classes is listening to the teacher and taking notes. This occurs despite the fact that research studies demonstrate that students in science and other subjects learn significantly better when learning is combined with interactive experiences such as field trips, guest classroom visits by scientists and engineers, inquiry-based instruction, role playing, group study and mentoring.
It is through many of these meaningful experiences that scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the public and private sectors can assist schools in exciting students about challenging technological fields of tomorrow.
Partnerships like these expose kids to inspiring learning in and out of the classroom -situations they often would not experience until they are older.
A perfect example of such collaboration is the inaugural 2010 USA Science & Engineering Festival we are sponsoring this October nationwide in which professionals from research, business and education communities in science and engineering will come together to assist teachers and schools in making technological discovery come alive for students.
This major event, which culminates with an Expo in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall, is jam packed with exciting hands-on, interactive experiences designed to give students an up-close-and-personal look at the latest in technology, and insight into how teachers can incorporate this information in their classrooms.
Through the Festival's extensive schedule of exhibits and presentations, students will be able to work on a surgical robot, fly in a flight simulator, use 3-D visualization to move cargo in a Space Shuttle, see future space travel, meet media personalities in science such as Bill Nye the Science Guy, experience future applications of green technology, and much, much more.
In addition, during this free event 20 Nobel Laureates in science and engineering will speak at individual Brown Bag Lunch sessions about their careers, while more than 50 noted scientists and engineers will fan out to schools in the Maryland, Washington and Virginia metro areas to conduct presentations about their work and what inspired them to enter their professions.
Through the Festival, we are hoping to reach -- and inspire -- more than a million students, teachers, parents and others about the wonders of science and engineering discovery and careers of tomorrow. We hope that this annual event also spawns other working partnerships between the technology community and teachers and schools across the country to begin helping making science "real" for our children.
I'll close this article with an eye-opening example of how fun and inspiring science can be for students when they are allowed to explore and discover on their own, away from traditional, and yes, sometimes boring, classroom and laboratory methods. The two high school students featured in this video entered it as part of the Festival's Kavil Science Video Contest just to demonstrate how cool chemistry can be.
As President Obama said: "Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, and our health, and our way of life than it has ever been."