How to Interest Kids in Science, Engineering, and Math

Or how to really make great American scientists again… 😉 Parents, here are suggestions for how to engage your kids.

I was a young boy in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  I still remember listening to John F. Kennedy say,

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Many of our politicians appealled to the best in us.  Years later I went into the Peace Corps that Kennedy founded.

Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn of the NASA Project Mercury space program were national heroes.  Everyone watched the manned space flights on TV.  I remember my father buying me a Cape Canaveral rocket set which consisted of small plastic rockets, launch pads, and other figurines which kept me occupied and excited for hours.  As I small child, I would take one of those plastic rockets and run around the outside of our house repeatedly, pretending that the house was the Earth, and I was in a spaceship orbiting it!!

I played outside a lot after school.  I was always looking at interesting rocks and minerals.  My father bought me the “Golden Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals,” and I used it to try to identify the interesting rocks and crystals that I found.  This made me want to be a geologist “when I grew up.”

Geology led me to an interest in chemistry when my father bought me a Gilbert chemistry set.  There were chemical tests to identify minerals.  I spent hours in my garage doing experiments out of the set’s excellent lab manual, making things like invisible ink, rotten egg gas, and doing metal plating via electrochemistry.  I learned separation techniques like paper chromatography and how to extract flower scents to make perfumes.  I also learned all kinds of methods in inorganic chemistry to identify unknown compounds.

The local hobby store carried a lot of glassware and additional chemicals to expand my range of projects.  Today, most of these things can no longer be found in stores, probably because companies are afraid of being sued if someone gets hurt.  I never had a single problem during all of my years of playing with these things.  No surprise, I soon decided that chemistry was what I wanted to do “when I grew up.”

Later my Dad bought me a Tasco telescope from a local department store and also a microscope which led to interests in astronomy and biology.

I did not spend any time at all sitting inside playing video games or on social media, staring at a phone, tablet, or computer screen as they did not exist.

This is the key point: I learned a lot of science by playing years before I ever took science in school.  When I finally had chemistry in high school, I was so far ahead that I breezed through the course.  The same was true of my other science classes.  They were easy, I excelled, and it built my confidence that I was on the right career path.

I was not alone.  From today’s perspective based on Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory” one might think that I was some kind of solitary nerd, but, after Sputnik, a lot of young people were interested in science and wanted to be scientists.  So many, in fact, that the US produced far more scientists than they were able to employ for a while.

Fast forward to today – most of American students want to become business majors thinking that this will get them a good-paying job.  They don’t stop and think what the future will hold when they graduate and find out that everyone else holds the same degree.  What will give them an advantage and make them stand out from all of the other business majors??

We import a lot of our technical talent from overseas.  Meanwhile our education system burdens our domestic students with AP exams that are full of traps to trip them up.  One of the few programs that still excites high school kids now is the robotics program which, as when I was young, gives the students a chance to play.

The lesson should be obvious.  If the U.S. wants to retain its place in science and technology, we need to seriously rethink the exam-cram system that we are currently using to teach these subjects.

We cover far more material now than we ever did when I went to school in the 60s, but I am not convinced that we are doing it effectively, and we do not seem to be producing students who are passionate about these subjects.

A final note to parents – the toys you buy your children can have a big impact on them.  Even more important is the time you spend playing with them.  Unfortunately we are all caught up in the fast-paced race to earn a living, afford our lifestyles, and “have it all.”  The time that we have to commit to each other has waned, and we are reaping the consequences.  Adults, as well as our overburdened “high-achieving” kids, are all way too busy.  We need to take a step back, and reconsider our priorities.

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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