From Venus to Shuttles, How to Get Kids Hooked on Science

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

There's lots of buzz around the Venus Crossing and Shuttle Enterprise -- but the US still lags behind the rest of the world in educating young scientists and engineers. David Plotz discusses Slate's project to figure out how to create better STEM education.

→ Your Guide to Today in Science and Engineering: Watch Venus Live | NYTimes Guide to Venus WatchingTrack the Shuttle Enterprise on EarthCam

Comments [25]

Joyce from Cliffside Park, NJ

AS a mother of 6, a grandmother of 4 (with 2 more on the way) and a retired Early Childhood Educator, my advice would be to read to your children about Science. Allow your toddler and preschooler to take risks; don't ban the water paint and Play Doh from your home. Encourage your child to investigate (in the dirt, with pots pans, creating sculptures with household materials) Have your child observe sugar turning into a liquid as it is heated; when ice cubes are left out of the fridge for a while, they melt; dig for worms; build a robot together; encourage language that asks "why?" Allow your child to get dirty; it's really OK. Have fun and let your child be in control as you control the environment for learning.

Jun. 05 2012 07:35 PM
CITYarts from NYC

CITYarts is taking a unique approach to science education. We are inviting NASA and their scientists to collaborate with us at PS 328, a struggling school in Brooklyn. We will produce and create a mural project with the students led by a professional artist. We believe that this exciting opportunity will inspire scientific and artistic passions in the underserved youth in the East New York community and allow them to think about education in a hands-on way that they normally would not. Beginning in June 2012, neighborhood youth will work with professional artists to create a mural entitled “Take the Red Road to Mars,” representing their dreams for a better future.

To learn more about CITYarts, check out our website ( or contact us at

Jun. 05 2012 12:50 PM
Laura from UWS

David Plotz is a GREAT guest!
I tuned in too late to add my observations about TV's Mr. Wizard and the Bell Lab TV shows inspired budding scientists in the 1950s. I got hooked on science from books by Jeanne Bendick.

Jun. 05 2012 11:30 AM
Polly P. from NJ

I wish we could expand science in the public image to include not just the predictable talk of planets, robots, anatomy, etc (because unfortunately this emphasis on "science" routinely turns off my daughters - the gender stereotype another huge issue) but rather teach it and talk about it as a method for learning about life, the world, other people, etc.

Nearly any topic could be approached empirically and even if in reality there are many constraints, kids are great at coming up with hypotheticals. I often ask my kids to figure out how to measure, objectify or study something. Of course kids ask these kind of questions all the time. My 6-year old asked me how much the local mall weighed the other day so I had him decide how to go about doing so (taking a small asessment, estimating) - thank goodness for Legos. But this "science" doesn't just apply to the objects but people too (yes, the softer sciences are indeed scientific too). My daughter and I just talked about how to judge who was the funniest person in her class, we "designed" a survey.

I'd love to see schools teach more by topics than subjects. As a psychologist whose done research spanning a number of disciplines (psych/educ/health)I know real-world problems and solutions aren't provided by a single discipline.

Jun. 05 2012 11:22 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Storefront Science ( opened last year in Washington Heights. They have clubs w/classes like "Darn Tootin' Newton" (gravity & other forces, motion), "Critters in a Jar" (self-sustaining ecosystems), & "Let There Be Light!" (energy/electricity) for kids in grades K-5 & an Inventors Club for grades 6-8. There are also Open Exploration sessions. I went to their preview before they opened, & it looks like a cool approach, although I think the classes are kind of pricy.

Jun. 05 2012 11:13 AM
desdemona finch from Brooklyn

Also, get teachers who have the intelligence to present science in new ways that inspire students. I once had a chemistry teacher in high school who had the personality of a rock. We called her Ms. Strycknine behind her back. I recall doing a philosophical interpretation of Einstein's Theory of Relativity that just went way over her head. Because she gave me a less-than-wonderful grade on it, I ripped it into many pieces. I wish I had kept it because I was really proud of it despite her lack of enthusiasm.

A year before at a more experimental school, I had a biology teacher who had us design our own crustacean. Now, that's a great teacher. Not surprisingly, he took a few years off to go to art school.

Despite my encounter with the personality-less chemistry teacher, I did go on to get an engineering degree in college. A science education is a great way to challenge you intellectually and will help you in whatever path you eventually pursue. My engineering class not only produced engineers but lawyers, assistant district attorneys, doctors, financial experts, journalists, entrepreneurs, etc.

Jun. 05 2012 11:08 AM

This is a sad symptom of reagan’s dumbing down of america and the continuing republicat war on science

Jun. 05 2012 11:03 AM
altokid from glen cove

Junior high is an impressionable age- I had great teachers in science at Hicksville. A teacher named Razak had a hands on approach, from making alcohol (from cheese-whew!) to judo to explain levers and fulcrums. Kids couldn't wait to get to class.

Jun. 05 2012 11:03 AM
Jennifer from New Jersey

I work as a science educator, am currently pursuing my MAT in biology and have two children. I think the best way to encourage science is doing science. Get one of the at home experiment books and let your kids get dirty. It's exciting to learn with your hands. Chose topics you understand or research the concepts with your child. Let them learn what human error is; that scientists don't always get the results they want. The over arching goal should be a scientifically literate society, that understands critical thinking and can make good judgements about scientific information. If we do that, the future scientists will naturally follow.

Jun. 05 2012 11:00 AM
Paul from New York, NY

It's also imperative that parents can answer the questions their kids have about science. If parents are not well educated themselves, their kids stand no chance.

Jun. 05 2012 10:58 AM
Jake from Nassau County

You should warn people not to look at the sun today ! "Reflection" mentioned by one caller is also dangerous, if he meant using a mirror. "Smoked glass" also not good, unless you really know what you're doing.

Go to an organized professional astronomy event, that's the only way to do this safely.

Jun. 05 2012 10:57 AM
Susan Begy from Brooklyn

I have 3 kids in their 20's and what I found is that often science is not truly introduced into the school curriculum until middle school. I think we can give them the building blocks of science much earlier. One simple, inexpensive measure is to put the periodic table in every classroom,just like the alphabet, beginning in kindergarten. Teach them about materials--steel, copper, salts, etc through simple hands-on experiments. Allow them to choose something of interest and break it down into its smaller physical components, chemical properties and relationships to other materials and energy forces.

Jun. 05 2012 10:57 AM
Lori Ann from Flatbush

Babies are scientists by default. I try to foster my two-year-old's natural curiosity by being patient as she studies the grass and picks up rocks along the long walk home from the shops.

In developing literacy in the classroom at the earliest ages, more science texts and topics need to be included I think.... It's a start.

Getting kids to stay interested would require enthusiasm from parents and teachers. We have to be excited ourselves.

Jun. 05 2012 10:57 AM
Marianne from Long Island City, NY

What can I do with my toddler at home to get him interested in science before he even gets into the classroom?

Jun. 05 2012 10:56 AM
Brian from Brooklyn

Pay us more $! I'm a PhD student and there's a constant temptation to defect from science. Why fight for peanuts when someone will give me 10 xs more to do basically the same thing (except centered around finance)?

Jun. 05 2012 10:56 AM
Amy from Manhattan

You can also use Mylar glasses or viewers to watch the transit of Venus. I was going to send the URL of the NY Times article on where to view it, but I see you also have a link above. The people running those events will have the right equipment (like filters on telescopes) to let people see the transit safely.

Jun. 05 2012 10:56 AM
Elle from Brooklyn

SUCH a good point - teachers CAN make children hate learning. I remember that I loved science until I started school and it became a bore. My son loved math until he started having to study for state tests and the moronic way they are taught - it made him hate it.

Jun. 05 2012 10:56 AM
Mike from NYC

What research did this guest do? In the online Scientific American blog there is a discussion on how there are insufficient jobs for chemists and have been an overproduction of chemists since the early 1990s. After the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a series of articles on how unemployed young physicists could find work as quantitative analysts on Wall Street. When politicians and business people say we need more scientists, they usually mean they want to bring in engineers on J-1 visas as virtual indentured servants who can be sent back to their home country if they should ask decent pay and working conditions.

Jun. 05 2012 10:56 AM
John A.

A best first tool might be a good magnifying glass.
For me what did it might be having been given a complicated device and a screwdriver to see what was in there. A suggestion might be an old alarm clock or a $1 cassette player from someone's garage sale.

Jun. 05 2012 10:55 AM
D. from Brooklyn

My 4 yr old daughter and I grow plants from seed in our windowsill and then plant them outside. It's domestic and scientific - she learns how things grow.

Jun. 05 2012 10:52 AM
Susan from Upper West Side

Hahaha -- I'm looking up stuff for my son's end of the year science project right now and I am alternating between HATING his science teacher for this major end of the year project and LOVING her for picking a project in his area of interest. Of all the ideas he proposed for his project, she picked studying the physics of Martial Arts kicks (he's a black belt). So its great for interest level. Unfortunately, the actual involves a lot of stop motion editing in iMovie to get the data. Since I am picky, I made my poor son repeat his experiment when the large graph paper they colored in wasn't big enough to track how far they were able to kick a punching bag with various different kicks. I'm getting a headache now trying to figure out how to help him represent angular and linear motion. Sigh. This is middle school! I don't even think I did a project this complex even in high school. By the way we LIVED in the Museum of Natural History on the dinosaur floor for the first two years of his life, then graduated to all the talks on science for kids as he grew older.

Jun. 05 2012 10:51 AM
Mariah from Jersey Shore

We need another great Star Trek series or something like it. Something that makes intellect a positive thing and discourages the current war on science and experts.

Jun. 05 2012 10:51 AM
Anne from Forest Hills

The best way to get kids interested in the STEM subjects is to let them DO them. Watching science/engineering/math/technology performed is usually not that interesting; actually experimenting, building, playing, working it out on your own is engaging and exciting. Endless field trips to watch demonstrations or following a closely proscribed set of instructions (to produce a single, narrowly defined, "desired" result) is what deadens children's natural sense of exploration and interest in these topics.

Jun. 05 2012 10:51 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

If Elon Musk's Space-X company pays well, he'll get engineers. The problem is, engineers do not have the protections that lawyers or doctors have. It's much cheaper and easier to import an engineer and get him on the job than it is a lawyer or a doctor.

Engineers have to really study and know a LOT compared to what they end up making. And relatively little job security compared to doctors or lawyers.

Jun. 05 2012 10:50 AM
Caitlin from Jersey City

Edison was a jerk! What we need is more Teslas.

Jun. 05 2012 10:48 AM

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