Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Science Outreach

The Center for Precollegiate Education and Training here at UF has a program they do every Summer called Science Quest. It's a pretty cool program where 10th graders are introduced to various careers in science fields. Most of them come in thinking that the only job you can get with a science degree is a doctor or an engineer, so it's a great opportunity for the kids to experience what it's really like to work in STEM fields and learn what kind of options are out there.

This year I volunteered to be a part of this project by giving groups of teenagers a tour of my lab and talking to them about my research. I love science outreach, but I've never done this before because...well, I work in a Microbiology lab. Everything interesting is microscopic. Would you be excited about taking turns to look in a microscope at a gram stain?

But this year the program was really short on volunteers, so I figured I could at least give it a shot. I gave two tours yesterday, which were about a half an hour long. I showed the kids around the lab, explained some of the equipment, let them look at some human cells I had growing under the microscope and showed them some pictures of microscopy experiments I had done in the past. All in all, it went way better than expected. The kids were genuinely interested and asked lots of questions. Some of them took pictures. One even wanted to read a poster of mine and seemed really interested in protein crystallography. Another really wanted to know what RNA was and how it worked, which was complicated because she hadn't studied DNA replication yet, but I think I did all right explaining it to her.

I learned a few things from this experience. One is that I have completely lost my ability to gauge how old someone is. It's weird...anyone from 13 to 21 just looks like a kid. Anyone 22-45 looks 'about my age', and everyone else is 'older than me'. I cannot distinguish beyond that.

I was also reminded how much I love science outreach. I really love talking to people about how cool science is. I volunteer as a science fair judge every year so I get to indulge myself a bit, but not nearly enough. And I should, because science is incredibly important while simultaneously being incredibly misunderstood and undervalued. Science education in the US is woeful, with science curriculum constantly under attack by revisionists who would prefer that children were forced to learn their personal philosophy rather than actual facts about how the world works. Curriculum is being rewritten to introduce controversy about human-caused climate change and evolution in particular...despite nearly unanimous agreement among experts about the reality of these 'controversies'. Despite mountains of strong, enduring evidence from every related field, going back nearly two hundred years, all supporting evolution, 40% of Americans still don't 'believe' that it is real.

This is a problem, not just because it is pure and utter bullshit, but because science first and foremost is a tool for understanding the world. It teaches us how to ask questions and figure out the best way to answer them. It teaches us to ask how other people know the things they know, why some evidence is convincing and some is not, and that sometimes new information means changing your mind. That crucial skill is being ignored or co-opted in order to promote individual agendas, and that is unacceptable. We need people who can think critically just as much as we need to inspire the next generation of scientists. We need people who will raise hell when politicians try to legislate reality and who will ask you to cite your sources when you claim 'the science' says gay people shouldn't be able to adopt or you shouldn't vaccinate children.

If kids are interested in science and understand how scientists work, critical thinking follows. So yeah, science outreach is important to me. I was reminded yesterday just how important it was, and I'm taking some steps to increase my involvement. If you want to help reach kids about science, consider volunteering at your local museums, Universities and science fairs. Here in Gainesville, you can reach out to the Florida Museum of Natural History, the University of Florida or Pamela Fitzgerald (fitzgepp@gm.sbac.edu), Science Fair Coordinator for Alachua County.

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