By Sally Ride • January 30, 2011
I was a typical girl growing up in Southern California. I loved sports and was outside all the time.
But indoors, my passions were math and science. My parents weren’t scientists or engineers, so they had a hard time understanding how their daughter developed such interests. It would have been easy for them to subtly shift my interests toward areas in which they could help me with my homework.
Thankfully, they didn’t. Instead, they encouraged me, and to this day I’m grateful to them that they did.
Believe it or not, encouraging children to learn science is not like getting them to eat their vegetables. Studies show that youngsters naturally like science.
But research also indicates that many drift away from science in upper elementary and middle school. Often it’s because our society sends false signals that science is dull, difficult and uncool, and that scientists are geeks who wear lab coats, pocket protectors and thick glasses.
Science is exciting! You can’t turn around without bumping into science. It surrounds us daily in the forms of technology, medicine, energy, the environment, even the food we eat.
It’s also vital to our economy and global competitiveness. It’s our job as parents, educators and Americans to inspire and educate the next generation of cancer researchers, environmental engineers and even rocket scientists. After all, 80% of jobs in the next decade will require some knowledge of math, science or technology.
We need to grab our young people’s attention and help them become science-literate adults.
Here are a few easy things families can do to open their children’s minds and teach them to “speak science”:
Watch what you say. Words matter and can leave a lasting impression. Comments like “I was never very good at science” can have an influence, subtly implying that your children don’t have to be good at it, either. This is especially important for girls, who sometimes don’t get as much encouragement as boys to pursue science studies and careers.
Encourage and reward. Our schools celebrate athletic achievement. Why not recognize science accomplishments as well? Make getting an “A” on a chemistry test as important as winning a soccer match. Plan a family celebration for kids who improve their grades on their latest science test.
Take a family field trip. Visits to the aquarium, botanical garden, science museum or zoo are fun and can bring to life science principles. And check out special programs for students that are both fun and educational.
Stay current. Do your kids want to be Martians? Water on Mars has been confirmed, meaning that life on that planet may be possible. Talk about what life would be like on another planet. Use current events to start a conversation about how science affects our daily lives.
By incorporating these tips into your family’s routine, you can emphasize science and its importance in a fun way. Think of it as a daily way to invest in your children’s future, because no matter what their career, our increasingly technological world will require them to “speak science.”
USA WEEKEND contributing editor Dr. Sally Ride was America’s first woman in space. She is president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, which supports math and science education with programs such as the Sally Ride Science Academy sponsored by ExxonMobil. She is also professor of physics emerita at the University of California-San Diego.