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“What STOPPED You?” How We’re Losing the Heart of Scientific Inquiry

At PSU Biology’s Alumni Night, I had the good fortune of chatting a while with Dr. Scott Gilbert, who aside from writing the primary textbook many developmental biology classrooms have used for years, is an incredibly engaging speaker and proponent of outreach. While talking about how to get the public excited about science, he told me a story that’s going to stick with me a while.

He was flying somewhere with Peter Galton, a very well known paleontologist who revised a large part of what we know about stegosaurus. They were sitting next to each other on the plane, excitedly discussing dinosaurs, when the woman next to them says, “Wow, dinosaurs! You study them? That’s so cool! How did you get interested in them?” Galton said to her, “Well, you were a kid and loved dinosaurs.” “Yes.” “What STOPPED you?” he replied.

“What STOPPED you?” is absolutely ringing in my head today. It’s a key question in trying to educate, to inspire people to want to know more.

If you walk into a room of kindergarteners and ask them if they’re scientists or artists or dancers, most of them will enthusiastically raise their hands. If you ask teenagers, very few hands go up. Where do we lose their interest in STEM? Why?

It might be peer pressure, early on. In some circles, science isn’t cool: it’s for nerds. Geek may be chic right now, but it’s too late for the now-adults who have maybe long given up that astronomy or engineering dream. When I went to school, being a super smart kid was kind of its own social clique, and perhaps that discouraged kids who weren’t in the super-powered classes from trying. The way our peers view us definitely has an influence on our learning trajectories.

As we get older, time gets shorter. We’re encouraged to specialize in an area. We have to work in order to make ends meet. We have families. New areas can seem daunting, like there would be too much to learn. Even though learning about chemistry was fascinating in college, now it feels overwhelming.

We’re losing our science literacy and excitement at a time when we need critical thinking and inquisition more than ever. Science impacts every aspect of life in key and crucial ways. We need our policy makers, educators, retailers, farmers, everyone from every walk of life engaged in the ideas of the world around them and how to both benefit from it and help maintain what we have.

What’s stopping YOU?