Monday, June 26, 2006

More on Science Education

Red State Rabble recently linked to an Op-Ed piece by Mark Drapeau, a neuroscientist and geneticist at New York University who argues that scientists must engage the public more forcefully on evolution. Dr. Drapeau offered a comment on RSR's post and I was struck by one paragraph in particular:

We have to realize what that means with regards to reaching the American people.Science needs an attractive, charismatic, highly intelligent, engaging spokesperson who can get on MSNBC or the Today Show and get people into controversial areas of science without being too much of a nerd about it. The question is, why don't we ever see scientists on mainstream tv?

While I agree that another Carl Sagan (as RSR notes) or some other highly popular, charismatic figure is needed at that level, we should also be targeting the younger audiences far more than we do as scientists. Even if I can't convey to an eighth grader the complexities of optimal foraging theory and how it relates to the evolution of hunter-gatherers in early human evolution, I can get them to ask questions, think about alternative explanations, and understand that the truest answers do not come easily. I can prepare them to be suspicious of FOX "facts".

I just returned from three days of camping at Burney Falls with my wife's Girl Scout troop. This is an older troop (6th to 9th grade) and we decided to avoid the throng of the usual Camporee and give them their own experience in the woods. So, did I advance the cause of science by giving a lecture on allopatric speciation? Of course not...I didn't have to. On the drive up I pointed out some Quaternary cinder cones and discussed out how multiple eruptions over the last 65,000 years led to their current shape. Along a hiking trail, we came across horsetails and talked about them being one of the oldest plant families, originating several hundred million years in the past. At the bathroom the girls noted the numerous spiders that were crawling on the wall and how they were like Daddy Longlegs, but somehow different. On the last day, several girls noted my "Darwin" sticker on the truck and asked me about what it meant. I asked them if they knew about Charles Darwin and to my surprise, one mentioned that he developed the concept of natural selection. Another said that her grandmother would not like the sticker, but that she herself was more open-minded about such things. All agreed that science did not preclude religous faith.

I considered all of this a solid step in the right direction. Next year, the girls want to stay at the Eagle Lake Field Station run by CSU Chico and learn about the natural history of the area (and of course spend time on the beach and swim in the will be kids after all!). Imagine what we'll be learning about then....

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