“Science is a love affair with nature – a love affair that has all the obsessive qualities, the turbulence, the passionate yearning that one commonly associates with romantic love. But where does this yearning come from?” V. S. Ramachandran “The Making of a Scientist” in Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, edited by John Brockman (2004)
When I serve as a science fair judge, I am often struck by the passion I see in individual students for the topics of their projects. Seeing my role of judge as an opportunity to extend a child’s thinking and learning, I usually spend a great deal of time with each student I’m assigned. I ask a lot of questions about the project. “How did you come up with this idea?” “If you were going to change something in your investigation, what would it be?”
But I also ask questions about their aspirations. “Do you have other things you’re curious about investigating?” “Have you ever thought about becoming a scientist some day?”
Within the nexus of questions like these, I often find a budding scientist — the student whose face lights up, whose entire demeanor shifts from reserved to animated, whose words spill out with passionate intensity.
These are the students who can tell you the very moment when inspiration struck. She didn’t get her topic from a list on the Internet. He’s not following a recipe. The project is somehow personal, related to a real life experience or problem or interest.
These are the students who will tell you how important their study subject is. They will go into vivid detail about the times they failed before they got it right. They will tell you what they plan to do over the summer to continue their investigation, and they are already thinking about next year’s project. They might know the kind of scientist they want to be some day, astrophysicist, for example, and they might tell you that they have asked for a microscope or a robotics kit for Christmas. They are already in love with science.
They are out there, these future scientists, in greater numbers than we might realize if we only look at the number of American kids who wind up in universities, studying science. In the schools I work with, the overwhelming majority of them are either African American or Latino. Many are boys. Some are girls. Some of them live in poverty. These are the very children, from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, that we need to find and support in becoming the next generation of STEM professionals, the scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists who grow our economy, while making the world a better place. But my sense is that many of them will not land on the right soil for blossoming into the scientists they have the capacity and inherent interest in being. And that will be a waste, both of their potential and of the contribution they could make.
The next post will feature an interview with a scientist. Larry Heaney is Curator and Head of the Division of Mammals of the Field Museum and 2014 recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award from the American Society of Mammalogists. With him we’ll explore exactly what it takes (at least, what it took for one boy) to find and nourish that spark, that curiosity, into a life changing flame – what it takes to create a scientist.
Learn more about the Inquiry Science (STEM) Institute here. (And yes, we are in the process of changing our name.)