Friday, July 11, 2008

Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy

Talked about keeping kids interested in science and engineering in junior high and beyond. In their talk and in this post, it gets shortened to “science” instead of “science, technology, engineering, and math” every time. It turns out that young kids love science, but the interest wanes or goes underground in 5th through 8th grade, especially for girls. Reasons include the wild-haired loner scientist stereotype, kids not seeing the relevance of science to daily life, and subtle messages from parents, teachers, peers and the media about what’s cool or appropriate or normal. The point is that kids already have the interest – adults don’t need to “convert” them, just encourage the interest that’s already there.

It means letting kids see that science is really creative, collaborative, and fun. Sally and Tam wrote books showing a diverse group of real scientists (diverse fields, diverse people) that told about their childhoods or outside interests along with how they do their scientific work. Another point is that junior high girls have a strong interest in having a positive impact on the world, and boys this age respond to this as well.

Their latest book is coming out in the fall, Mission Planet Earth. It draws on research on climate change and Sally’s experience in space and presents the evidence in scientifically accurate and age-appropriate language. To introduce this, they showed images from space, many from Sally’s missions. These included a dramatic view down the eye of a hurricane and a smoke overcast from burning of large sections of Amazon rain forest.

Discussion after the talk included a request for them to write Danny Dunn style books with a female main character (they do nonfiction, but think it’s an excellent idea that should extend to TV, the internet and other media), whether to separate boys and girls in class and lab (good idea for a few years – boys tend to exude confidence and do all the hands-on, while girls tend to hold back and watch. Once the habit’s broken and the kids are in upper grades of high school, don’t need to continue the separation), how they got into science (both had parents who were encouraging. Tam’s were teachers, I think, and Sally’s’ were a political science professor and homemaker who both valued education and encouraged her interests). Their advice to parents was to help kids understand what they’re passionate about and let them explore a variety of books and ideas.

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