After the Inauguration
By Dr. Gil Noam and Dr. Pendred Noyce
Consider these realities as a parent, teacher, youth worker, citizen: The country has engaged in what we call “mask wars” over the past year, despite the clear consensus among scientists. The former president stated repeatedly that not only did he not lose the election, but in fact won by a landslide. And finally, there was the armed insurgency — instigated by the executive branch against the legislative one — all in the name of truth!
Now a new administration is changing course, elevating a science advisor to a cabinet position. But will citizens be convinced by science? We can hardly make sense of all this as adults, but how are our children and adolescents to understand and process this back and forth? What are the long-term remedies and what can we do right now?
It’s hard to feel optimistic about our society’s ability to stay unified as we take on longer-term threats such as climate change, pandemic prevention, and the erosion of our economy and democracy. Collectively, we have demonstrated that we are unable to think clearly about objective facts and debate what to do about them without rancor. Many of us find it all too easy to push aside scientific and other sources of evidence to align our beliefs behind “opinion leaders,” such as politicians, media personalities, bloggers, and more. In this post, we will stay with science as a main pillar of rationality and evidence; in future ones we will address roots of informed citizenship more broadly.
Despite educators’ best efforts, a large percentage of the population has not internalized a scientific point of view, that one can develop questions and hypotheses, establish experiments or examine data, and interpret the outcomes. Worse, our inability to tell fact from fiction or skepticism from conspiracy theory now threatens any short-term bipartisan policy-making or long-term protection of our planet. The depressing part is that unscientific thinkers are all products of our education system, typically progressing through K-12 classrooms for 13 (!) years.
Science rests on widely agreed-upon facts, but somehow many scientists and scientific outlets have failed to convey their knowledge in an inclusive way, while school has encouraged the idea that serious study of science is suited only for the few. This year’s visible demonstrations of the harmful division between scientific haves and have-nots should motivate us to rethink what is most important in educating our children. After all, in the late 1950s and 1960s, fear of being superseded by other countries was enough to inspire the Sputnik wave of educational change. Today, shouldn’t fear of our nation fragmenting before existential threats, such as pandemic disease or climate change, spur us to a similarly sweeping response?
To face a world of challenges, our society needs both a stronger understanding of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and knowledge of how to reason, communicate, and negotiate decisions requiring difficult trade-offs, such as individual freedom vs. the common good, or public health vs. economic growth and stability. If we can recognize facts and apply reason to their implications, we can learn to debate solutions respectfully and constructively. From our perspective, better science learning leads to better citizenship. To avoid misunderstanding, we do not mean the rote memorization of science facts or even the highest scores on science tests. We are talking here about scientific habits of the mind, an interest in discoveries, in how things work, a critical but respectful attitude toward research results and a curiosity about new STEM trends that are increasingly defining our world.
A sad fact is that science interest diminishes in middle and high school, as childhood curiosity gives way before a learned belief that science is only for a few accomplished people. Children show disengagement from STEM in adolescence, just when its topics should become most interesting and just as youth are developing the capacity for analytical and self-reflective thinking. They use technology-a form of applied STEM-all the time, but it does not necessarily lead to an enlightened mindset.
We suggest that you — parents, grandparents, teachers, doctors, and journalists — encourage everyone to think that science, like democracy, is part of our common heritage, something we all value and need. Any time we sit on an airplane, visit a doctor, or order food, we take STEM for granted. We should begin to make this explicit when we talk to children. Have them learn to ask questions about how we know things, how things function, who builds them, and who repairs them. You don’t have to know the answers, but you should encourage such inquisitive intelligence, and you can look up the answers together with your child right there on your phone or at home on the computer.
But it is not all about the thinking mind. Science can come across as cold and analytic, lacking soul and even relevance. Our approach is far more inclusive. To nurture science interest, we need to apply an important idea throughout childhood and adolescence. Learning has an emotional base: affect, engagement, a sense of personal relevance, and relationships are vital if young people are to open their minds, remain curious, and feel attached to a body of learning like STEM.
Many of the elements necessary to develop science engagement, interest and identity — relationships, motivating experiences, a sense of belonging and competence — can be found in the best afterschool programs, and also when family members read books or watch science programming together. But these elements should be incorporated in school far more often than they are now, especially in middle and high school.
This past year’s experiment in distance learning has exposed as never before how learning can suffer when relationships, physical movement, and direct engagement are limited. This moment, as many teachers mourn the loss of personal interaction with their students, may be the perfect time to move toward combining elements of social and emotional development (SED) and STEM.
How? One immediate way is by discussing the topics of the pandemic — for example, the development of vaccines, the mechanism of recovery from illness — all in the service of giving young people some sense of control over a frightening period of their lives. Teachers can divide up the class to debate about lockdowns and opening the economy, to help students listen to each other and argue rationally. They can also ask students, especially the older ones, to research topics to put forward the strongest arguments. Emotions are fine and can actually create more motivation to engage a topic, but STEM is also about research findings and peer-reviewed results that lead to certainty in some areas and acknowledged uncertainty in others. Children need to learn these distinctions from early on and throughout their schooling. Afterschool and summer programs need to reinforce this view, as do families who need to overcome their own sense of “feeling dumb” regarding science and take risks in discussions and debates with their youth.
When teachers and parents encourage these STEM and SED processes to take hold, they fortify the skills our children need to become effective citizens of the future. Instead of intimidating and reserving STEM to the privileged few, let’s engage our children and youth in joyful science exploration, and foster passion in learning the secrets of nature and the patterns found in data in everyday life. Not only does this engagement aid in a child’s cognitive development, but it can also nurture the emergence of citizens who employ scientific habits of the mind and can help unify our society.
Gil Noam is a clinical and developmental psychologist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He recently wrote Ten Big Bets: Transforming Education During the Pandemic and Beyond, aimed at bringing ten core ideas for educators and administrators to use in the difficult months and years ahead.
Pendred (Penny) Noyce is a doctor, educator, and writer of children’s books. She was a founding trustee of the Noyce Foundation, which focused on improving K-12 education, and is a founder of Tumblehome, which seeks to inspire kids’ love of science through the power of story.