The next generation of scientists will walk on Mars, edit our DNA, and quite possibly save the planet. But if we don’t inspire kids to explore science, there won’t be a next generation of scientists. Jayshree and two special guests dig into the thorny problem of how we can encourage kids to pursue - and even love - science.
Welcome to episode 2 of Science Champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
In this episode, we’re talking about how to inspire a lifelong passion for science. The next generation of scientists will walk on Mars, create human-like artificial intelligence, and quite possibly save the planet. But they can perhaps only achieve these accomplishments if they pursue an education in science.
To help explain how we can inspire and encourage young people to pursue — and love — science, I’m joined this episode by two champions: Joanne Manaster and Vanessa Hill.
Joanne, would you like to tell us a little about yourself?
Joanne Manaster: Hi, my name is Joanne Manaster, and I'm a faculty lecturer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, of biology, I’m a cell biologist. I was working on my PhD., and as I was working on my Ph D. I discovered actually I really like the teaching thing more than the research, so that's what led me down that path.
And eventually, I became very interested in reaching out further to people as an extension of my role as an educator, and found websites and Twitter and Google-plus and Facebook. And so you can find me there as more or less a science ambassador or science communicator.
Jayshree Seth: Thank you. And Vanessa, you’re a science educator as well, right?
Vanessa Hill: Yes, sure. My name is Vanessa Hill, I am a science communicator and film maker, so I currently host and produce the series for PBS called BrainCraft, and I've worked on a bunch of other stuff in the past; I hosted a series for the ABC in Australia called Science, and I made a documentary last year called The Menu. And before that I was a science educator.
Jayshree Seth: Vanessa, What got you interested in science as a child?
Vanessa Hill: So, I was always a very curious person. I was always asking a lot of questions at school and things like that, and I was also really fascinated by the natural world. So, I grew up in Australia where there are lots of animals, weird and wonderful and venomous as they are, and we always had boats and went out fishing and when bush-walking and things like that. And I was hooked on David Attenborough science documentaries, so I used to sit in front of the T.V. — and we only had four T.V channels — and watch a lot of documentaries.
And then when I was 15 I did an internship at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, in the Australia level division. So, it was pretty fascinating. I spent a couple of weeks there, and I walked dingoes around the zoo before it opened, and I held the koalas during the presentations and things like that. And I thought I always wanted to be a zoo keeper. Then I went to the University of New South Wales, and actually chose it because I could study biology and creative writing at the same program, because I was always kind of interested in the arts as well.
And while I was there I took some psychology courses and some neuroscience courses and I found that I was very fascinated in how people work as well as how animals work. So I actually ended up majoring in psychology. I took a lot of biology courses but that kind of piqued my interest. I was very curious in how we behave the way that we do and why we make decisions and found the brain just a fascinating piece. So, that was kind of my journey from a very fascinated by nature to people.
Jayshree Seth: Was there a particular person who started you on that path?
Vanessa Hill: in Australia especially there weren't very many science communicators on T.V, there was a number-1 there was a show on Saturday mornings called Agro’s Cartoon Connection which was kind of just like a whole bunch of cartoons and there was a woman who hosted it. Agro was a puppet, I should tell you, and there was a woman called Ranger Stacey, she was like a national parks ranger who hosted with Agro. And she was an inspiration for an influence for me as well because she was basically the only woman in media that I really knew as a kid.
So, I mean there was her there was David Attenborough and there was another science communicator in Australia called Dr. Carl who did a lot of work on T.V. and radio, and wrote books and things like that. And maybe All of them want really a lot of influence as I know from my friends and colleagues in the US they talk about Bill Nye the Science Guy and Carl Sagan, and lots of figures like that, but [I didn't have that]. So, there were a few but really like David Attenborough takes a lot of credit for me because he was one of my only influencers.
Jayshree Seth: Who do you think might influence kids today to get into science?
Vanessa Hill: I think it's really varied like I think that obviously T.V. still has a really wide reach for the young people and especially in families like if something that is used quite frequently. So, I think that, you know, Neil de Grasse Tyson hosting the rerun of Cosmos a few years ago, Myth Busters, like those kinds of shows still have a really wide reach with young people. But I actually think that now there's a lot of niche content. Like, young people now can find anything that they're interested in like I can even imagine being a child now and then able to find a show dedicated to butterflies which was something that I loved when I was a kid. That really fascinates me.
So, I think now there’s kind of a shift where. T.V. and books and kind of more traditional media still play a role in influencing people, but now there's YouTube channels for everything from butterflies to dinosaurs to knitting to 18th century cooking tutorials, you know, like there's kind of something for everyone. So I think there is this new generation of influencers for young people looking for a career choice. Like, you can find YouTube channels for making your own terrible robots like robots that are designed to be really crappy and do kind of obsolete things.
So, I think that there's definitely a lot more people out there who are influencing young people and I think also encouraging them and inspiring them to feel confident in having different kinds of interests.
Because for me I grew up in a beach town outside of Sydney that was very much like surfing and football focused, so for me having an interest in science was kind of odd and people would call me a nerd quite a lot and there wasn't really an outlet for me to go and find other people who were also nerds and to celebrate that like I didn't talk about it a lot.
Jayshree Seth: Joanne, how did you get started in science? Were you interested in biology from the start?
Joanne Manaster: That is a great question because when I was growing up I wanted to be an astronomer and there might have been a slight influence from Carl Sagan in that regard. However, I didn't really know any scientists at all, at some point I shifted gears and said I think I'll become a doctor and part of that came from the fact that my father was in hospital administration, my mother had several illnesses that required her hospitalization and I felt like that's something where I could take my love of science, because I did have a love of nature and biology especially.
But I didn't know any scientists. I didn't really know what the field of science was so I thought, well, becoming a doctor that will be using science, that's a logical way, that's the way I understand science should be. So, I didn't actually have a particular person who influenced me when I was younger for science because I didn't know anybody in science. And so, it wasn't until I was at the university, when I looked through a microscope and I went whoa wow look at these cells, I think I want to do this for the rest of my life is to work with cells instead becoming a doctor. So, that's how I ended up becoming a biologist.
Jayshree Seth: That sounds like a defining moment.
Joanne Manaster: Now, and for the things I can remember I couldn't tell you exactly which cells it was but it was some sort of tissue and stained very colorfully. And for some reason when I looked at it and I looked at the instructions of you will see this and this and this I got it I went I see it that's amazing and we can tell this and we know what these cells do just by looking at them. So, it just reeled me in and I was thrilled.
Jayshree Seth: What advice would each of you have for a young person pursuing a career in science?
Joanne Manaster: Definitely, if you are interested don't let anybody or any teacher any parent and even society anything either to read your friends tell you cannot do it, because of course you can and there is no reason why you cannot. And for me I was interested and nobody ever said you can't girls don't do this.
Vanessa Hill: I think that you should celebrate what you're interested in and know that it's OK to be curious and it's OK to be smart and ask a lot of questions; I would encourage people to […] our personalities and maybe relate it to what they're interested in. And I think now there's a lot of like in-person in real life clubs and things you can join like [girls who code] is a fantastic organization that has after school clubs in every city in the U.S. basically and where you can go and learn how to code.
And there's all kinds of groups like that and things which are available now which were not available when I was a kid. So, I’ll really encourage people to speak out things that they’re Interested in celebrate them and find other like minded people, because the Internet is a wonderful place for finding people who have similar interests to you who may not exist next door or even at your school.
Jayshree Seth: How are educators doing in terms of encouraging women to explore careers in science?
Joanne Manaster: Well, that's an excellent question and one that we're asking a lot these days. Now, in biology I feel like we're really moving along in that area, there are a lot of women especially in the undergrad phase. As we go to graduate school of course there are fewer women, but in biology it still a good number a good percentage, I hear of undergrad might even be up to 70% women maybe even more, as we get to graduate school we're getting more to 50 and depending on where you look at things, you know, I even look in my departments and there's still fewer women than men but it's pretty equal in biology, conversely, if we look at something like physics or engineering then we start to see that number skewed more towards men.
My oldest daughter is currently working on a Ph D. at the University of Washington in civil engineering and her undergraduate degree was in Physics and she was just one of a handful of women in the department and she would always be frustrated about certain professors who seem to have really old-fashioned ideas about women and that you know that they probably shouldn't be there. But I think those people are moving along they are retiring and we're starting to have more enlighten people more modern people come along and to be able to help people understand that women are just as good as these tasks as men.
Vanessa Hill: So, I think that actually having more dynamic in school programs is a better way of encouraging people who wouldn't have thought that they were interested in science, like I think when we have after school programs and clubs like Girls Who Code therefore people who are very interested in science and I think they're definitely really important in fostering that curiosity and growth like enabling people who are really to be able to develop those skills and knowledge is really important. But I feel like having as I said more dynamic education in school is a good way to encourage people to take science subjects in senior school.
Jayshree Seth: Our survey found that younger people were more likely to have a positive perception of science, but there’s still this idea that without science, their daily lives wouldn’t be much different. How can we make science more relatable to our future generations?
Joanne Manaster: So, I feel like you know so these young people are using technology at higher and higher rates, and I think that there is an appreciation for science because actually in school they're learning about D.N.A. when they are 6 and 7-years old, and whereas decades past that might have been high school was your first time to be introduced to D.N.A. So, I think young people are starting to see the intricacies of science earlier and earlier during their education. So, I think they have an appreciation even if they do not articulate it.
Vanessa Hill: I think that the next generation sees science like scientific advancement as it is very important, right? like the Internet and artificial intelligence and machine learning and like all of these things will shape a new generation of jobs that we might not even see now in the workforce. Like the job that I do now producing videos for YouTube and being an educator on the internet didn't even exist when I was at college, right? which is kind of weird to think about.
I actually think is interesting considering the perspective of young people now because young people like 40-years ago or 50-years ago would have been fascinated by space exploration or then my generation were fascinated by the Internet like a kind of wonder sometimes what fascinates young people today. But I think that new technologies will provide people with a lot more job opportunities and things that we haven’t seen before.
Jayshree Seth: What do you think is the most effective strategy to encourage the next generation to pursue a career in science?
Joanne Manaster: Well, I think as with anything you can find out what's important to them and then eventually sort of you can walk into the conversation whether it's short-term or long-term things that science have done that are related to those things that are important to them. So, for a while ago I haven't done a video on the chemistry of makeup in a while, but you know I realize even for myself one day I was looking at the side of a nail polish bottle and I went nitrocellulose! why is nitrocellulose in my nail polish? because in my lab I use it for something completely different, so I went in investigated and the fact that there is science in everything they interact with or do I feel like that is a jumping off points to be able to talk about how science is helpful and that there's not only nifty trivia but really relevant information that they can use.
Vanessa Hill: I think that young people today may not appreciate all of the advancements in science and technology that they use every day, right? I mean there's a lot of things that we understand about our climate and our planet now from satellites leaving there I think going to explore other planets like it's funny that space exploration and leaving at helps us understand more about ourselves.
And we have made yes so many advancements and understanding the medics and understanding our psychology that we haven't in the past. So, I think that breaking science down through everyday objects like explaining to kids how touch screens work in the iPad and how Sunscreen protects your skin and how nanotechnology works in that way is a good way to kind of introduce them to other concepts.
So, I think that everyone is a scientist at heart like if you're asking questions and you are interested in the world and you’re curious and you just want to find something out you can be good at science; Like scientists are people who just do that professionally who asked lots of questions and you ask questions that other people haven't asked before like if you want to do a noble research study you have to think outside the box and be creative like scientists are actually quite creative people and think of questions that haven't been asked before. So, I think that people have this view that maybe they're not very good at science but they do appreciate the things that science offers and maybe the impact that it has on our everyday lives.
Jayshree Seth: Joanne, Vanessa, thanks for joining me.
The next generation of scientists are already out there somewhere — in a classroom, in a library, on their smartphone. They’re creative and curious, and they’re just waiting for the right encouragement and inspiration to pursue a career in science. As our champions said, the best way to spark that passion may be to show them just how much of a role science plays in their everyday lives.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. Next episode, I’ll be joined by Jeff Terry, physics professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. We’ll discuss how educators can be Science Champions to their students and the world at large. Subscribe now on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Dive into the data from the State of Science survey with our interactive State of Science Index homepage.
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