STEM gets a lot of attention, and employment stats show a dramatic growth in STEM-related occupations. Knowing it’s cool is one thing, but it’s different to know how to foster a love of science in little ones and encourage bigger ones to pursue STEM careers. Not everyone has a renowned research biologist in their contact list, but thankfully Karen Murchie, Ph.D., Director of Freshwater Research at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, shared her thoughts on how parents can encourage their young ones to become scientists.
CP: Why is it so important to instill a love of science in our kids?
KM: You don’t have to be a scientist to have an appreciation of it. Knowing how the world around you works and what role you play in it—just being able to understand and critically understand the information you are getting is valuable. Science trains you to be a critical thinker.
What did your parents do when you were little that you believe led you to choose a career in science?
My parents always encouraged my brother and me to spend time outside. We had a lot of opportunities to ride our bikes on trails or around the countryside. We also spent much time at the local conservation area that was only a few blocks from our home. My mom was very good in engaging us in observation-based activities like looking for license plates from different states or Canadian provinces when we were traveling in the car, or having us learn the different birds that came to the feeder. I think that having freedom to explore and discover nature was a large component in leading me to a career in science. My parents never discouraged any of my interests either, which surely contributed to where I am today.
How can parents use a trip the Shedd Aquarium as a springboard to exploring careers in science?
Before coming to Shedd, parents could have their kids think about some discoveries they would like to make while on site and use that as a way to navigate the visit.
We have so many people working in different areas, whether it’s the water quality aspect or animal health or microbiologist or behind the scenes. We have freshwater and marine, so the website is a good resource to explore. There’s the conservation experts page that parents can guide their children to and look at the bios.
I’d encourage parents and their children to interact with Shedd staff by asking any questions that come up.
Little ones are naturally inclined to be inquisitive and explore. How can parents capitalize on that?
The curiosity little ones have in asking “why?” is important. We as adults may feel like we have to know the answers, but sometimes going through the process of exploring and finding the answers is exciting. Sometimes, we don’t know everything but that’s part of science, too.
It’s not remembering all the information that’s important, it’s more about the learning process that they’re going to take away and use as an adult.
Talking about girls specifically, research shows girls lose interest in science and math at the end of the tween years or as teens. Do you have any thoughts on what parents can do to counter that?
In talking with other female peers in fisheries science, I’ve learned that many of us have doubted our abilities in some aspect of our career. I think that any activity related to confidence-building in teenage girls could potentially help curb any loss of interest in science and math classes.
It’s important to reinforce that no one is a master at every single component of their career straight out of the gate. Being able to realize that you can give yourself the space to learn and push yourself is equally as exciting as it is scary. Looking back on accomplishments is very rewarding.
What hopes do you have for what it will be like when today’s kids are entering the STEM workforce in around two decades?
The biggest change I’m seeing in the past several years is the number of females in fisheries, both grad students and practicing scientists. My hope is that barriers, real and perceived, will continue to be removed or broken down in STEM fields. Equality and diversity are key components to success in these areas, and to society as a whole.
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