Making Science Relevant

Panelists at last night’s Science Online New York event made it clear that the way to make science interesting is to make it relevant.

Khadijah Britton is the founder of BetterBio, a Boston-based organization focused on connecting science and residents in underserved urban neighborhoods. She said that much of the conversation on teaching science in this country has focused on being able to compete in the global marketplace. But, said Britton, in order to get youth interested in science, the question to tackle is, “How do you reach people in a way that is not about competing, but about them and their needs?”

In a partnership with the Science Club for Girls, for example, BetterBio will help a group of eight teens learn about endocrine disruptive disorder—something very common to women in their neighborhood due to environmental pollutants—by interviewing experts in the field.

Dr. Meghan Groome, director of K12 Science Education Initiatives at the New York Academy of Sciences, agreed that science should be personal. “How do we make science apply to the individual?” she asked. Sometimes the answer is through technology: Groome hooked up students in a third-grade classroom with an astronaut via Twitter. Sometimes the answer is through exposure: After science graduate students teach elementary school children, the kids come to realize that scientists aren’t always middle aged white men with crazy hair. As Groome concluded, “Putting science in front of a child goes a long way in improving communication.”

This is something that Bernice Rumala, co-chair of Rockefeller University's Achieving Successful and Productive Academic Research Careers (SPARC) initiative, has seen firsthand. “Even short-duration exposure [to a science environment] can have huge benefits,” said Rumala. She organized a one-day program during which 36 students from a high school in the South Bronx visited Rockefeller University and interacted with scientists. Four students were accepted into a highly competitive summer program at the institution after the visit, and the classroom teacher connected with and received valuable mentoring from scientists.

What can you do when the science presented to young students does not match the students’ experiences? Children in Puerto Rican science classrooms read about maple trees, which do not grow in the tropics, and balloons causing static in hair, which is hard to notice when hair is not straight and the climate is humid. The message, said Dr. Daniel Cólon Ramos, was “here’s how science works, but it really doesn’t apply to you.”

Colón Ramos started the website CienciaPR to change this message. Five years about its founding, the site has more than 5,000 members—scientists and science enthusiasts with a connection to Puerto Rico. The site “contextualized science of the Puerto Rican reality,” said Colón Ramos. Scientists who had registered on the site were invited to write short essays explaining the most interesting parts of their research. These were first printed in the newspaper El Nuevo Día, and they are about to be published in book form. Students in public schools in Puerto Rico read the essays and had the opportunity to meet the scientists who wrote them.

Clearly, no matter where you live or what your background, science can and should be relevant to your life.

The Dana Foundation has encouraged brain scientists to share their knowledge with their local community through its Brain Awareness Week (BAW) initiative. If you are involved in brain science, become a BAW partner and make a difference.

–Johanna Goldberg

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