When I was six, I fell in love with science. Visiting a friend one day in rural Indiana, her mother, an artist, showed us how to see onion skin cells using a microscope. A whole world opened up to me and I was hooked. Liking science became a part of my identity even though I had never met a scientist nor had I studied science in school.
Research shows that, like me, many STEM professionals can point to an experience, often in early childhood, that inspired them to pursue a science career.
"A surprising number of students still believe that most scientists are white men in lab coats."
Role models are also known to play a critical role in building and sustaining student interest in science and science careers, as well as changing perceptions of scientists. A surprising number of students still believe that most scientists are white men in lab coats. Moreover, for many students, the only STEM professionals they ever meet are pediatricians and school nurses. Thus, students’ ideas of both who goes into science and available scientific careers are very limited.
How can we provide students with that critical spark and introduce them to role models? Science Festivals, a growing national movement, are one way. The Bay Area Science Festival seeks to inspire and connect attendees of all ages with STEM professionals from a range of fields. The Festival is a 10-day celebration that reaches more than 75,000 people and culminates with a free, hands-on science extravaganza at AT&T Park.
Many groups around the country also connect science professionals with students in schools, after-school programs, and in laboratories. Here at U.C. San Francisco, more than 250 scientists each year volunteer in classrooms via the Science & Health Education Partnership. Through these programs, students develop relationships with scientist role models, experience enriched science learning opportunities, change their perceptions of scientists, and critically, start to see themselves as scientists.
"In our teaching, we need to intimately link doing science with learning science and thus create opportunities for discovery and inspiration in the classroom and beyond."
Finally, a critical place for that love of science to grow, is schools. Schools are the only setting where we can reach nearly all students. But, to do so, we actually have to teach science—our country’s education policies have resulted in most elementary students receiving little to no science instruction.
This year’s release of the Next Generation Science Standards provides an opportunity—both to increase the amount of science taught and the way it is taught. Science is not a list of facts to be memorized. It is a creative endeavor, a dynamic and exciting field, and STEM professionals are constantly learning and solving problems. In our teaching, we need to intimately link doing science with learning science and thus create opportunities for discovery and inspiration in the classroom and beyond.
By: Rebecca Smith, Ph.D., Co-Director, UCSF
Science & Health Education Partnership