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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Column: Just grow up

They used to call me Bug Girl. In elementary school, I ran around at recess catching ladybugs in sandwich-baggies and poking grasshoppers with sticks. I used to go out in the backyard and catch bees in old pickle jars. Heck, I even had pet African millipedes – the black, coiled creatures that tickle as they crawl up your arm.

I loved my nickname.

Then in sixth grade, I found a really big slug on my way to school. I brought it with me to show my friends in P.E. class. I didn’t realize bringing a slug into a middle school girls’ locker room would not go well (for my reputation or my ear drums). This was middle school. There was a wall between cool-kids and science-nerds.

A few weeks ago, I was in San Diego for a conference on the advancement of science. During a panel on science and entertainment, an elderly scientist stood up to ask a question.

“What if, during each episode of a television show, a kid on the show told the other characters what he learned in science class?” he asked.

I wish it were that simple – that Bart Simpson could explain glucose synthesis and suddenly science would be cool.

Science writer Natalie Angier has a theory regarding why science goes from awesome to dorky as we get older. In her book, The Canon, she uses science museums as an example of a place where science is cool for children but not adults. Science museums cater to a young audience with exhibits on “Grossology” and IMAX movies. The atmosphere of a science museum is loud and wacky, so it seems juvenile to a middle-schooler who wants to feel grown-up.

There have been many studies regarding why kids don’t become scientists. Some blame science education. Some blame the old-white-guys-in-lab-coats stereotypes. Some blame portrayals of scientists as villains or dorks in entertainment.

“From medieval stories about alchemists to films about computer hackers, good scientists are in the minority,” wrote researcher Roslynn Haynes for the journal of the Public Understanding of Science.

I did an unscientific survey in my graphic design class recently. I asked my classmates how many of them had wanted to be some kind of scientist when they were younger. A quarter of the class raised their hands. The professor admitted she’d wanted to be a biologist.

I also dreamed of being a scientist, but I don’t regard my switch as a failure. I’m still hopelessly curious about the world. I want to know how my car works, how my brain works, how life on Earth began!

The writing process is a lot like the scientific process. I have an idea, so I test it out. I tweak my writing over and over to see how I can affect the result. I throw out the trials that don’t work, and then I submit a result that makes sense. My peers review the product and tell me if it stinks. There’s the same kind of curiosity, trial, error, result and review in almost any discipline – from gourmet cooking to competitive video gaming.

The kids who used to live for science have expanded their worlds.

Science museums may pander to kids, but they have the right philosophy: Don’t make science cool, make science fun. It’s the Bill Nye the Science Guy strategy.

“Science is fun,” Angier writes. “Not just gee-whizbang ‘watch me dip this rose into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor’ fun, although it’s that, too. It’s fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good.”

Picnic Day is a great chance to experience the fun of science. So on Apr. 17, take a break from the battle of the bands (or the booze) and go to the chemistry magic show or the invertebrate petting zoo.

Call me immature, but I was thrilled to pet a sea urchin last year.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT needs to correct a typo from last week. Her tour guide at the UC Davis wind tunnel facility was Greg Taylor, not Grey Taylor. Grey isn’t even a real name. E-mail her at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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