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Johnston: Science for all

By Adam Johnston - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Jun 22, 2022

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Adam Johnston

I can clearly remember the start of my career in October 1957. True, I wouldn’t be born for another 15 years, but the launch of the USSR’s Sputnik satellite also launched waves of reform in science and math education that would continue to evolve for decades. Even today, remnants of that era are part of our educational fabric. Events like science fairs took hold during the Space Race era as we promoted kids’ interest in becoming engineers and astronauts. We began to envision a “STEM pipeline,” a route to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Even though that great national effort led to a successful space program, national labs and technological innovation, I’m not sure that we actually did that much to meaningfully improve education. We looked to streamline teaching through inventions like the overhead projector. Writers dreamed of a day in the near future when computers and robots would deliver information efficiently to our children directly into homes — something we felt almost universal disappointment in during the pandemic.

Perhaps the biggest hole in our space race education was in its goals: It aimed to produce researchers and engineers in a kind of contest to skim off a few who fit a certain mold of our preconceived impression of who could make a good scientist. These education reforms weren’t for everyone; they were for NASA of the 1960s.

Around 1989, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) initiated an ambitious project, Science for All Americans, part of Project 2061, an overarching effort that could be enacted by the time of Comet Halley’s orbital revisit in that year. Its premise is pretty much exactly what the title suggests, a welcoming for all citizens to understand science. Some of them could become scientists, but more importantly, we recognize that science literacy is part of what makes democracy and citizenry possible.

For the past two weeks I’ve been working closely with teachers in summer courses, working together with them to better understand what we mean by science understanding and how we get there. Across the board, these teachers of kindergarten to college prep courses all share a mission to assure all of their students learn. One of their biggest commitments is that learning science (and other subjects as well) must be a personally relatable experience. That is, kids learn science through direct and meaningful connections, the stuff under their feet and the problems that face their communities. We know this from research, but also from our own experiences.

The problem is that we still stereotype science through a 1960s lens. We imagine scientists in lab coats and with an intense stare into the microscope or a spreadsheet of obscure data, or maybe someone calculating the trajectory of the rocket they’d just designed with some new composite material. Certainly, there’s room and even need for this, but some of the best and most innovative scientists I’ve ever worked with fit in a completely different frame.

These scientists, the ones I genuinely believe will lead us in all ways in years to come, thrust their hands into buckets full of goo, figuring out how combinations of kitchen ingredients make stretchy putties they can roll up into balls and later stretch into wide sheets. These scientists pull the string of a gyroscope and then start to imagine all the different ways that the spinning object could balance. They put their bellies down to the grass and pull out a hand lens to peer into the jungle on the ground, seeing the details of the dirt, grass and crawling creatures magnified in front of them.

Those scenes and more are those that I’ve seen over the years at Science in the Parks, running right now in Ogden. (See scienceintheparks.org for details and a schedule.) But they’re also the kinds of experiences that we can all have in our kitchens, backyards and sidewalks. Playing and wondering are the attributes I admire most in the scientists I work with, the astrophysicists and materials scientists down the hall from me, those in my classroom and the diverse collective of children outside playing in parks.

Adam Johnston is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Weber State University, where he helps to prepare future teachers and provides support for classroom educators throughout Utah.

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