Johnston: Science for all | News, sports, jobs


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Adam Johnston


I can clearly remember the beginning of my career in October 1957. True, I would not have been born for another 15 years, but the launch of the Sputnik satellite of the USSR also launched waves of reform in science and mathematics education that will continue to develop for decades. Even today, remnants of that era form part of our educational fabric. Events such as science fairs were held during the era of the Space Race where we fostered children’s interest in becoming engineers and astronauts. We’re starting to envision a “STEM pipeline,” a pathway to STEM careers.

Although this major national effort led to a successful space program, national labs and technology innovation, I’m not sure we’ve done much to meaningfully improve education. We have sought to simplify teaching through inventions such as the overhead projector. Writers dreamed of a day in the near future when computers and robots would efficiently deliver information to our children straight into homes—something we have been globally disappointed with during the pandemic.

Perhaps the biggest gap in our education about the space race lies in its goals: It aimed to graduate researchers and engineers in some kind of competition to weed out a few who fit a certain mold of our preconceived notion of who could make a good world. These education reforms were not for everyone; They were for NASA in the 1960s.

Around 1989, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) began an ambitious project, Science for All Americans, part of Project 2061, a comprehensive effort that could be operational by the time Comet Halley returns to orbit that year. His premise is very much what the title suggests, a welcome for all citizens to understand science. Some of them can become scientists, but more importantly, we recognize that scientific literacy is part of what makes democracy and citizens possible.

Over the past two weeks, I have been working closely with teachers on summer courses, working with them to better understand what we mean by understanding science and how to get there. Across the board, preparatory course teachers from kindergarten to college share a mission to ensure that all of their students learn. One of their biggest commitments is that learning science (and other subjects as well) should be a personal experience. That is, children learn science through direct and meaningful connections, the things under their feet and the problems facing their societies. We know this from research, but also from our own experiences.

The problem is that we still picture science through the lens of the 1960s. We imagine scientists in lab coats staring hard at a microscope or a fuzzy spreadsheet, or maybe someone calculating the trajectory of the rocket they just designed with some new composite material. Sure, there is room, and even a need, but some of the best and most innovative scientists I’ve worked with fit in an entirely different framework.

These scientists, who I truly believe will lead us in every way in the years to come, shove their hands into goop-filled buckets, figuring out how kitchen fixtures produce stretchy pastes that can be rolled into balls and later stretched into wide sheets. These scientists pull the string on the gyroscope and then begin to imagine all the different ways a rotating object could balance. They laid their stomachs on the grass and pulled out a hand lens to stare into the woods on the ground, seeing details of the dirt, grass, and creatures crawling in front of them.

Those and other scenes are the ones I’ve seen over the years at Science in the Parks, now working in Ogden. (See scienceintheparks.org for details and schedule). But they’re also the kinds of experiences we can all have in our kitchens, backyards, and sidewalks. Playing and wondering are the features I admire most in the scientists I work with, the astrophysicists and materials scientists down the hall from me, those in my class and the diverse groups of kids outside playing in the gardens.

Adam Johnston is Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Weber State University, where he helps prepare future teachers and provides support to classroom teachers throughout Utah.



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