At the 2012 Leadership Institute, I had the honor of listening to Dr. Marinda Wu, ACS president-elect, give a talk to student leaders. During her talk, she discussed the widespread science illiteracy and declining science and engineering enrollment in the United States. In response to this decline, Wu and her ACS Local Section began “Family Science Night” to explain to parents the importance of science, as well as a “Science Café” program that began in Orinda, CA restaurants, where expert speakers present one-hour, easy-to-digest science presentations for people of all ages to enjoy. I, like Dr. Wu, am very passionate about promoting science literacy because we need to further promote science education, and, as chemistry students, we can play a large role in bringing an understanding of science to our local communities.
Why We Should Reach Out
In 2006, TIME Magazine reported on the struggles experienced by U.S. students in keeping up with the pace and enthusiasm for science, as compared to their international peers. Additionally, a 1998 Science article, written by Norman Augustine, retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, warned that widespread scientific illiteracy in the U.S. could stifle future scientific endeavors, and this still holds true today. Currently, only 33 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives have a science, engineering, or medical background. As Dr. Augustine warned 14 years ago, “these are the people who must make the decisions regarding automobile pollution standards, approval of a space program, funding of the superconducting supercollider, the human genome project, and developments in bioengineering.” In order to choose the proper leaders to support future scientific programs, Americans citizens must be scientifically literate as well.
Also in the TIME Magazine article, Stanford University president, John Hennessy, expresses his concern regarding the lack of scientist role models, which could partially explain the low rates of science literacy in the Untied States. This is where we, as ACS members—members of the world’s largest scientific society—come into play. We must, like Dr. Wu, step up to the plate and try to become scientist role models for our communities. We have devoted countless hours to studying for tests, preparing for labs, and unraveling discoveries. All of this time that we have committed means something to us, so let us explain to our communities the beauty that we see in science.
Contributing to Science Literacy
I have tried to be a scientist role model in my community by volunteering with my ACS student chapter at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Academy and with the San Antonio Children’s Museum. The Science Academy brings a maximum of fifty 7th grade students from disadvantaged middle schools in the San Antonio community to participate in hands-on science experiments at Trinity University. I have the privilege of providing these students with new scientific knowledge and discussing their perceptions about college. During lunchtime, I try to connect to these students on a personal level and help them see how college could be possible in their future. My hope is that by their visit to Trinity, these students will raise their expectations for themselves, and who knows, maybe one student may start imagining himself or herself as a scientist. At the Children’s Museum, our student chapter performs simple science experiments such as density experiments and acid/base chemistry. Our goal is to not only entertain but also to catalyze a love of science. We hope to educate parents as well as children to promote science literacy in our community. And, through reaching out to our community, I am continually trying to grow as a role model.
Becoming a Role Model
My best advice in becoming a role model in your community is: it all starts with a smile. Many people perceive science, especially chemistry, as intimidating. As role models, we should welcome new people into the scientific community. Talk to individuals in your community and by understand their background and their interests. From this starting point, you can show how their interests connect with science. For example, my father was raised on a ranch, herded cattle, and was a rodeo bull rider in his younger days. When I first tried to explain my chemistry classes to my dad, it seemed like I was talking to him in a completely different language. Then, one day, I started explaining the chemistry behind the conversion of muscle into meat. From working on a ranch, he knew that the animals would become stiff (rigor mortis) and that freezing the carcass too soon after death would result in tough meat. I explained to him that this process occurs because the energy reserves of the animal become depleted and the muscle proteins can no longer relax. Moreover, I explained how the stiffness of the muscle tissue begins to decrease due to the enzymatic breakdown of structural proteins that hold the muscle fibers together; this aging effect produces meat that is tender. Because he already knew about this process, the chemistry behind it seemed to finally click. In many cases, if you put chemistry concepts in to a familiar context, then an individual, no matter their background, can understand the basics behind chemical concepts and chemistry’s connections to everyday life. If you need examples of everyday science, then check out the website by Exploratorium. It gives simple explanations for the science behind cooking, hockey, music, and much more!
As young chemists, we are in a unique and powerful position to make a change in our communities. We can try to mend the chasm between the public and scientists. A 2012 New York Times blog asserts that “[t]oo few scientists are willing to engage in public debates” and willing “to explain the relevance of their fields clearly and without jargon.” I think that we can prove this wrong; I believe that we can do more. I believe that we can educate our communities, explain our research simply, and promote political leaders who understand scientific principles.
I want to hear your stories about how you promote science literacy in your community, if you know of new articles on science education in U.S., or if you are aware of any political agendas on science education. John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, said, “Every great advance in science has issued form a new audacity of imagination.” This audacity begins with us stepping out into our communities and helping others better understand the world around us.
If you have any questions about fun science experiments or how to become involved in your community, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.