Sparking a passion
New study finds youngsters’ interest in science, math can last a lifetime
The next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians could be playing with Legos on your living room rug, and it’s their parents more than schools who are encouraging them to pursue their dreams, according to new research by George Mason University.
Families play the leading role in building the next generation of scientists who may solve daunting problems facing our society, said Lance Liotta, co-director of George Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine in Manassas, Virginia. Only after the family do schools and even colleges play a supporting role.
“We were surprised to learn that the family is more important than we ever thought in terms of igniting the passion of future scientists,” said Liotta, a study author. “It was unexpected, but overwhelmingly the kids (in the study) said that it was their parents who turned them on to science, not their experiences in high school or elementary school. It was the parents who got their kids excited about science.”
Making an impression
The George Mason study is the first peer-reviewed article of its kind to focus on what initially attracts young people to the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. The findings could shape public policy and encourage community-centered activities designed to foster a love for science in the pre-teen and preschool crowd, says Amy Adams, director of George Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program and study co-author.
The majority of students surveyed — 65.5 percent — said science experiences with a family member or a childhood activity piqued their initial interest. Hands down, 92.6 percent of the students said hands-on lab experience cemented their decision to make a career in a STEM field.
“Science is all around us, and kids are naturally curious. They’re thirsting for knowledge,” Liotta said.
How to encourage kids
Any time is a great time to encourage science and math play.
“I have four grandchildren and love to work on science projects with them,” Liotta said. “Among many of the fun memories, we have made autonomous robots and held robot wars at Thanksgiving. We have also tested new micro airplanes and radio-controlled butterflies, and studied the behavior of cicadas.”
It’s easy for parents to help fuel the imagination of future scientists with fun family activities and toys.
“There are a ton of wonderful resources on the Web, videos to watch together, projects to build, workshops, summer camps, and many fun and inexpensive toys,” Liotta said. Here are some of his favorites:
n Raspberry Pi is a low cost, credit-card-sized computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV, and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. It is a capable little device that enables people of all ages to explore computing, and to learn how to program in languages like Scratch and Python. It’s also a digital project maker, so kids can create music machines, parent detectors, weather stations and tweeting birdhouses with infrared cameras.
n PBS and Nova teamed up to create “Making More Stuff.” In this four-part special, technology columnist David Pogue takes a wild ride through the cutting-edge science that is powering a new wave of technological innovation. Pogue meets the scientists and engineers who are plunging to the bottom of the temperature scale, finding design inspiration in nature, and breaking every speed limit to make tomorrow’s stuff “Colder,” “Faster,” “Safer” and “Wilder.”
n Children as young as 2 will be fascinated by a live butterfly garden and experience metamorphosis in action as the caterpillars change into chrysalides, and finally emerge as butterflies.
n Crayola sells all sorts of imagination-boosting products such as paint and crayon makers, color projectors and sketching devices.
n To expose kids to biology and medicine, consider microscopes, human body anatomy toys, insect farms and DNA extraction kits. For chemistry, pick up slime lab kits, crystal-growing kits and chemistry sets. Astronomy and space exploration interests will be boosted with telescopes and meteorite excavation kits. To study the environment and weather, buy your child an alternative energy kit or a weather lab. Blocks, electrical circuits and robotics are great for exposing kids to physics and engineering.
“Parents who see the spark of science talent in their kids should reinforce that talent through family projects and nature walks,” says George Mason College of Science dean Peggy Agouris.
Don’t forget science classes or parties and playing with interactive science apps.