Don’t Let Your Son Grow Up to be a Scientist

My title is meant to be an echo of the song about not letting your son grow up to be a cowboy. How could we possibly have gotten ourselves into the fix we’re in today? We have one political party that is reviving memories of the Know Nothing party of the 1920s when it comes to science and common sense. Freedom not to vaccinate your children because you “own” them? That’s what Rand Paul said the other day. Chris Christie said much the same thing and then backtracked a bit as he thought about how far he could step back from his original statement and still be a viable presidential candidate for the modern version of the Know Nothing party.

Remember the Know Nothing party? People proudly proclaimed that they “knew nothing” and they were proud of that as they expressed scorn for northern intellectuals. The implication was that good old common sense was far superior to stuff you learn in school. So, at the same time that a significant sector of the American people deny climate change, the value of vaccines, evolution, etc., America is having problems finding children interested in science and then educating them.

We can’t graduate enough scientists; in fact, America has been importing scientists from other parts of the world for years. Unfortunately, countries such as China and Japan are now creating lucrative opportunities for their Ph.D graduates from American colleges to return home.

Why can’t we grow our own homegrown scientists? The answer is that we make science very dull during the very years when kids might become intrigued enough to make science their career choice. I’ve been hearing horrible stories of incompetence  when it comes to teaching middle grade science. Teachers who didn’t even minor in science wind up basically staying a chapter ahead of their students. High school teachers are almost as bad. At the same time, parents and their children have to take some responsibility for the dearth of scientists. Lax parents don’t go over homework and enrich their children’s education by exposing them to museums and technology exhibitions. They also don’t monitor the amount of time their kids spend playing games. Students also have to take some of the blame because they choose easy subjects.

I remember when I majored in Chemistry in college I watched many of my friends who were business or liberal arts majors finish their classes by noon while I spent entire afternoons in labs. Many students today don’t want to work as hard as science classes require, so they take the easy way out. One major university not far from me has a racial divide with asians filling its science classes while others crowd into easier classes.

So, we have public figures ridiculing science and scientists while students avoid science because it’s hard. It’s not an easy time to become a scientist even though we never needed scientists more. I’m not sure what it would take to change the situation. Perhaps if we have a major show stopper such as evidence of extraterrestrial life or a major breakthrough in medical technology that increases longevity, maybe students will see science as an exciting place to go. In the meantime, we really need the same industry that complains it can’t find homegrown scientists to adopt middle schools and high schools and offer financial and manpower assistance. Picture a real live chemist coming into a middle grade science class and showing off some amazing results.

So, if you read this and you are working in industry, encourage your company to adopt a school. If you have kids who think science is not “cool,” then take them to some science museums and show them just how exciting science can be. I never regret all the science classes I have even though I now spend my time writing. Science knowledge helps citizens understand major political issues revolving around science so that they can push their elected officials in the right direction. If more citizens had more of a science background, politicians would not be able to lie about climate change or try to dismiss what is self-apparent by saying that they are not scientists and so can’t say definitively that the climate is changing.

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