You might think that the first thing people would want to talk about when they find out I’m part of the Earth science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), would be satellites or astronauts, or, well, anything Earth or space related. But nope, that’s not the case. The most common thing I hear when someone finds out I work at NASA is “I used to love science when I was a kid.”
Used to love science.
A little while ago, I was helping chaperone a group of third-graders who came to visit the lab on a field trip. There’s an insane amount of coolness to check out at JPL: the spacecraft assembly facility, mission control, models of rovers and two museums. The kids were extremely well behaved. They sat quietly, listening to each presenter. When it was my turn to talk, I decided to rile them up, because a field trip is supposed to be educational and fun. So I yelled, “Who likes Justin Bieber?” and that got them all screaming. Then I asked, “Who wants to be a scientist?” and there was silence. After a moment, one little guy in the front row, this nine-year-old kid, looked up at me and said, “I’m not smart enough to be a scientist.”
Still joking around, I puffed myself up as though I was willing to beat up the person who made him feel that way, and asked, “Who told you that?” He replied meekly, “I thought it in my own head.” I wondered how many others thought that they, too, weren’t smart enough. So I asked, and about 75 percent of the class raised their hands.
Young people like these eventually hit college, where they’ll be forced to confront the antiquated, yet widespread, practice of instructors and educational institutions attempting to “promote rigor” by failing up to half the class. How grim. This means that by the time they’ve reached adulthood, too many people have become disconnected from science and, frankly, end up feeling dumb. How often have you heard someone say, “I’m not a math person”?
Those who feel judged, excluded and ostracized miss the opportunity to acquire an understanding and appreciation for scientific methodology and can turn apathetic or antagonistic toward the sciences.
This indifference toward science has significant and substantial real world implications as our society continues to face the perils of climate change and other environmental challenges. People who were pushed away from science in school don’t just disappear, like students at the end of the semester. They grow up and they vote. And since we live on this planet together, our collective actions impact each other as well as other species, which means that every apathetic citizen or hostile denier represents a gamble on everyone else’s future.
We can no longer rely solely on what the science geeks and enthusiasts understand. We can’t depend on scientists to “save” us. We need everyone to care about science. We need everyone fighting to be an active part of the scientific conversation, bringing their talents, skills and intelligence to the discussions and research. Climate science literacy is the ability to understand science well enough to apply it in your life; to make decisions based upon science. And this type of literacy will become ever more essential.
We need more people to participate meaningfully in public policy debates and contribute to the discovery of global solutions. We need innovative responses to big environmental challenges.
Isn’t it time, then, for all of us — young and old — to cast off any negative self-judgment about our intellect and imagine a new identity that includes and embraces our inner science spark? Isn’t it time for each of us to recognize the intelligence we have so we can move forward into the modern world with self-confidence, strength and power?
We are smart enough. All of us. And we must remain curious and critical lifelong consumers of scientific information, equipped to make informed and responsible decisions that will affect the lives of our neighbors, our environment and ultimately, the whole world.