The end of year holidays are a time filled with travel, food and family. Like many of you, I spent time with family and friends, socializing, discussing life events and sharing stories. Among the most memorable of those experiences was the time spent with my nieces' children, all of whom are between the ages of one and four. Because I do not spend much time with small children these days, I was able to observe them and their behavior from a fresh perspective.
Yes, there was the frenetic pace and seemingly boundless energy of the young, followed immediately by exhaustion and serene sleep. There was also the complex and sometimes daunting logistics of feeding, travel and entertainment that all parents manage daily. Neither of those, though, was what I found most fascinating. Rather, it was the wide-eyed wonder with which the young greet new things.
A one-year old fascinated by musical tones, a two-year old enthralled by the tensile strength of a spring, or a four-year old pondering the statics and dynamics of a pile of blocks, these are the wonders of science experienced firsthand.
In turn, this caused me to reflect on the nature of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and the nature of scientific and engineering research. After all, the fundamental and unbridled curiosity of a child is the birthmother of all of science and engineering.
I am no expert in educational pedagogy, far from it. Nevertheless, after spending over forty years in schools, colleges and universities, one does learn a few things. At the very least, I once carried the title of professor and was granted license to claim to know.
In reality, science and engineering, and even abstract mathematics, are about experiential learning – one gains insights and appreciation by doing rather than merely observing. It is why we conduct experiments to test hypotheses, build computational models to bring our theories to life, and build new devices that embody engineering knowledge. We want to see and experience, demonstrate and validate.
Yet so much of our K-12 science education remains driven by a dry recitation of facts that expunges all the experiential joy of science, leaving only dried husk of knowledge. Too frequently, we insist on conformity, when the practice of science and engineering has always been critically dependent on the iconoclasts who question the current orthodoxy. Indeed, that questioning is at the very foundation of the social and technical process we call science. I believe we must nurture that curiosity throughout the educational system, letting students see how they can ask and answer questions that make a difference in our world.
The questions are simple yet profound, and the shift from a child's question to our deepest unsolved queries is so very small. Mommy, why is the sky blue? (Answer: Raleigh scattering, though simple, not easily explained to a child.) How does a flower grow? What is gravity and why is there mass? (Answer: These are some of the deepest questions at the frontier of science.)
All too often, the process, politics and bureaucracy of science and engineering consume us. Whether writing the research proposals and the inevitable progress reports, crafting the papers under deadlines, or traveling to conferences and symposia, our time and energy can be frittered away. All these are necessary, but they are not sufficient. In truth, they are the detritus of innovation and discovery, the artifacts of our modern scientific enterprise.
Periodically, it is worth taking a step back, pausing for a moment to remember why each of us became scientists. It was not the research grant (necessary though it is), nor was it the publication (essential to disseminating a discovery). It was the curiosity, the passion, the amazement and the wonder. Those things make it the love and the labor of a lifetime.
The next time you see a small child, staring in wide eyed, open mouthed wonder at some action or object, remember and savor the experience. It is why you are a scientist or an engineer, asking questions and staring in amazement at the answers the experiments reveal, still a child at heart.