By B.E. Strauss, Department of Earth & Planetary Science
On November 10, Dr. Michelle Dickinson (better known as Nanogirl) spoke to a full house of scientists, engineers, and educators as part of Rutgers’s 250th anniversary celebration. In her talk titled “Science Is Everywhere: Challenging and Changing Attitudes about Science Education,” Dr. Dickinson set out two big questions for her audience:
1) Who was your favorite teacher?
Why? Was it because of their topic, or because they loved what they taught and showed that through their teaching?
Dr. Dickinson proposed that getting students invested in STEM fields relies not on the topics themselves, but on how they are presented. She highlighted the shift in STEM interest that occurs during the transition from middle to high school: suddenly science stops being fun and starts to be hard, or boring, or impossible to apply to real life. In contrast to the hands-on demo-driven approach that dominates science education for young children, teaching to tests and out of textbooks can destroy the excitement that made many of us curious about STEM in the first place. As a result, kids (especially girls) start to lose interest in science when they are around 11 or 12 years old.
2) How do you know what you know?
Perhaps more importantly, how do other people know what they know?
Much of the information we consume about science and engineering is filtered through the lens of popular media, which is often inaccurate. As a nanotechnology researcher, Dr. Dickinson frequently encounters the fuzziness of pseudoscience in public perception. She asked us to consider the jargon and buzzwords we use and what these words mean to non-scientists.
Dr. Dickinson emphasized the importance of teaching and demonstrations, applying the old writer’s adage “show, don’t tell” in a STEM context. By stepping outside of the lab and into the classroom or onto the stage, we as scientists and engineers have the opportunity to show who we really are and what our work is really about.
“Science isn’t just a subject. It’s a journey of discovering how the world works.”
–Dr. Michelle Dickinson
In the second half of her talk, Dr. Dickinson shifted focus to the skewed demographics of STEM students and researchers, who are predominantly white men (at which point, much to my shock, three or four men stood up and walked out of the hall). Changing this dynamic, she explained, is absolutely crucial for the future of scientific research. Diversity has been shown over and over to improve team dynamics and the results of collaborative work. When different perspectives are brought to the table, standing questions get novel answers and new questions arise that were never considered before.
Dr. Dickinson points to visibility as one component of this process, calling to mind the “if you can see it, you can be it” mantra prevalent in studies of gendered attrition rates in STEM education. It is on us – scientists and engineers of increasingly diverse backgrounds – to disrupt expectations about what scientists and engineers look like. By engaging in public outreach and sparking interest among our students, we pave the way for the next generation of STEM researchers.
To learn more about Dr. Dickinson and Nanogirl, check out her website at http://www.medickinson.com.
About the author
Beck E. Strauss is a postdoctoral research associate at the Rutgers Paleomagnetism Laboratory in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences. When she isn’t assembling lab equipment or calibrating new instrumentation, she studies the magnetic recording properties of geological materials from Earth, the Moon, and beyond.