Close your eyes for a moment and envision a scientist. What picture appears in your mind? For most adults—and kids—the image of a scientist is that of a bespectacled man in a white lab coat, bubbling beakers in each of his hands and a slightly crazy facial expression, locked in his mad laboratory. But women are scientists. And many scientists never even set foot in a lab, preferring field work. There is an abundance of science-based careers to choose from, from astronaut to zoologist.
We need science to inform us on life choices we make every day—the very act of questioning our world leads to knowledge and self-empowerment. How can parents encourage their children in science?
Connect the world of science to your child’s interests. Share what you know and refer to the books at your local library to explain what you can’t. Does your child adore trains? Look up how train systems have morphed through time, from steam powered engines to maglev (magnetically levitating) trains. Do LEGOs rule in your home? Challenge your kids to a building contest and talk about the structures that make buildings strong. Check out Family Science by Sandra Markle ($19.95, amazon.com) for more ideas.
Don’t forget about your daughters. It wasn’t too long ago that Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers caused a scandal when he suggested that the country’s shortage of elite female scientists might be due to "innate" differences between men and women" and just a few years ago even Barbie was complaining, "Math is tough!" Check out your daughters’ toys. Let’s face it: the princesses are trying on new shoes and gowns and searching for Prince Charming. The Bratz are in a limo, lip implants and ultra miniskirts in place, on their way to a party. Make sure to encourage your daughters’ interest in science through educational toys, movies and books. Alternate a reading of Bratz Stylin’ and Salon with My Name is Not Isabella by Jennifer Fosberry ($15.50, amazon.com), the story of a little girl imagining herself in the shoes of famous women in history. Parents should check out How to Encourage Girls in Math & Science: Strategies for Parents and Educators by Joan Skolnick ($17.50, amazon.com).
Visit any of our local museums or science centers and ask for information on educational programs and summer and after-school camps. We’re lucky to live in the Chicago area, where local museums offer a myriad of science-based programs for kids and families.
The Adler Planetarium (adlerplanetarium.org) offers Astrovernights, in-house sleepovers featuring late night telescope viewing, hands-on activities and related shows in the Sky Theater. Have your children ever wondered what it would be like to be a dolphin trainer? At the Shedd Aquarium (sheddaquarium.org), the Trainer-for-a-Day program offers the chance to step into the flippers of a trainer: you’ll assist with feeding and training belugas, dolphins, sea otters, sea lions and penguins. At the Museum of Science and Industry (msichicago.org), teens can become ‘Science Minors’: they’ll receive intensive, ongoing training, meet a variety of professional scientists and other science-minded teens as they learn how to explain science to museum visitors.
Let your kitchen be your laboratory. Science in the Kitchen by Susan Meredith ($5.99; amazon.com) offers step-by-step instructions for fun science projects that involve everyday kitchen items and foods. Learn what makes food sour or fizzy and how to make invisible ink while exploring the taste senses and melting and freezing points, among other lessons.
Take a hike: Give your children the gift of the great outdoors and go for a walk on a local nature trail. Collect leaves and identify them at home with the help of the step-by-step "What tree is it?" guide at arborday.org/trees/whattree. Make a mental list of all the animals and bugs you encounter. Back at home, look up interesting facts on each of them online at animals.nationalgeographic.com. Since kids learn through play, be prepared to let them dig in the dirt, get wet socks and shoes at the edge of a brook and run through a grassy field to catch butterflies. Even city dwellers have easy access to nearby nature centers: check out the North Park Nature Center on the North Side of the city, a 155-acre preserve with easy hiking trails for even the youngest tots.
Better yet, go camping. Nothing quite sparks interest in the great beyond of space like sleeping under a starry sky.
Scientists ask questions—and it may take years to come up with answers. The important thing is to keep on posing new questions. Encourage your children to wonder and they’ll be well on their way to becoming the scientists of tomorrow.