why, Why, WHY? Three-year-olds hold the key to science literacy

young friends imageI opened up a recent Nature Alert to find an editorial entitled “Learning in the Wild (1).” In this piece the authors discuss the current cries to improve science and math education in the United States. As the piece states, much of current educational policy focus is on classroom learning, revamping the “No Child Left Behind Programs”, setting higher standards for student performance, developing solid curricula, etc.

But, as this article points out, most people learn their science outside of the classroom. And, in our increasingly technology- and science-driven world, adults will need to keep learning science long after we have left the classroom.

So what drives quality informal learning? And, how can we improve it?

When my mother had aortic and mitral valve replacements, I learned a great deal of anatomy that I never learned in my formal education (nematodes don’t have aortic or mitral valves). I also learned a lot about kidney function, dialysis, and rheumatoid heart disease. And, when her surgeon sent me a link to the website for the manufacturer of the stentless valve that he used, I learned a lot about the geometry of inserting a stentless valve. It was fascinating.

So, as the Nature editorial indicates, situations that life hands us can drive learning in science, but that is not always true. Although I wanted to learn as much anatomy and physiology as I could during my mom’s illness, my mom didn’t want to learn about these things, at all. Maybe it was because she was ill and didn’t feel like learning about the things that were making her so sick, I don’t know.

But, my mom certainly isn’t the first person I have encountered in life who simply didn’t want to know more about something really important. For instance, there are a lot of people driving cars who don’t have the foggiest idea of how they work or understand the physics of friction and traction. There are thousands of people who use computers, but don’t have a clue how the computers work or even what the data they enter actually mean. That’s a problem, because lack of understanding causes car accidents. Lack of understanding interferes with meaningful communication.

I have always been an avid learner. When I found myself fresh out of graduate school, teaching in a rural undergraduate institution where I was the only molecular biologist, I started learning prairie ecology and hanging out with the zoologist who studied frog and toad populations. To this day I listen to for anuran calls in the spring and have an incredible appreciation for the prairie ecosystem. When I met my husband who is an electrical engineer, I took renewed interest in Bertil Hille’s book Ion Channels of Excitable Membranes, which was languishing on my bookshelf so that I could talk about capacitance and electricity with him. When I recently found myself surrounded by knitters, I also found myself learning to knit.

An article describing Sean Carroll’s recent appointment as VP for science education for HHMI reveals a little about what grabbed Carroll’s interest in science (2): it wasn’t a teacher or a classroom experience. It was raising snakes as a child, doing “experiments” to determine their favorite foods and being fascinated by the patterns of their skin (he now studies patterning in Drosophila). I had the pleasure of interviewing James Inglese a few years ago who described his “science education” as starting with a Gilbert Chemistry set in his parent’s basement. And, Sara Klink, another Promega blogger recently interviewed Ed Himelblau who said playing in tide pools as a kid stimulated his desire to learn more science.

So informal experiences certainly contributed to the development of these scientists, but will increasing the quality or exposure to these kinds of informal experiences improve the U.S. performance in science and math? I don’t think so.

And here’s why: people who are naturally curious want to know more about every subject that crosses their paths: science, math, art, literature, music, economics. I think the people who learn informally share a personality trait of being curious, of showing initiative, of being willing to investigate on their own.

So it’s not the exposure to the informal science experiences per se, that we need to encourage. We need to foster the innate curiosity, inquisitiveness, and willingness to investigate a three-year-old has. The curiosity that our formal educational systems so quickly squelch. We need to foster initiative in our children, to raise motivated self starters who aren’t afraid to keep asking why? Why? WHY? We need to help them figure out how to investigate to the point of finding the next question to answer.

  1. Nature editors (2010). Learning in the wild Nature, 464 (7290), 813-814 DOI: 10.1038/464813b
  2. 2010. Nationally Recognized Evolutionary Biologist Named VP for Science Education HHMI News.
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Michele Arduengo

Social Media Manager at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele is the social media manager at Promega and managing editor of the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys getting lost in a good book, trumpet playing, knitting, and snowshoeing.

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