by Amy McCarthy
Schools across the country are cutting back. Budgetary concerns and standardized testing have meant that many kids are receiving less science education than before. We spoke with Bill Nye, famously known as The Science Guy, about why he loves science and why it’s important for American students to have an excellent science education.
Parenthood.com: When did you become interested in science? Has it been a fascination since childhood, or did it develop as you got older?
Bill Nye: I really don't remember when I became fascinated with science. It was certainly before I was four years old; it may have been before I was 3. My parents encouraged an interest in science. I remember being absolutely fascinated with my grandfather's glassware. My mother let me play with a box of it. He was an organic chemist, who held a couple of patents. Chemists in those days knew how to blow glass and customize their apparatus. It's analogous to my nephew and niece, Ph.D. chemical engineers, who can adroitly manipulate chemistry software– different skills in different times. My older brother was a big influence as well. He was always experimenting with rubber band ballistics, flowering plants, balsa wood aircraft, Venus flytraps, and water balloons.
Parenthood.com: Do you think children are less interested in science now than they were say, 20 years ago? Why do you think that is?
Bill Nye: On the contrary, I don't think kids are less interested in science. My audiences seem more into science than ever. Instead, our society has lost a little respect for it. During the Cold War and the arbitrary but remarkable goal of putting humans on the Moon, the Space Program was spending over 4% of the federal budget. Science was a little bit more in the public discourse. The Space Program now is about a tenth of that. But much more importantly, nothing has taken its place. Just imagine the leadership opportunities for any government if it were to commit that fraction of its funding to new or better types of energy production, energy distribution, transportation efficiency, or climate change. It would change the world. I love space exploration, of course, but, we need investment in all the sciences for our economic well being and health.
Parenthood.com: It's no secret that STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) education has taken hits in recent years - how important is it for American students to have access to quality education in these subjects?
Bill Nye: It's the key to our future. So many of the products and corporations that we admire were created and are run by engineers, people who use science to solve problems and make things. I'm not just talking about electronic consumer products. I'm not just talking about the astonishing efficiencies of the Internet marketplace. I'm talking about farming, food distribution, healthcare, transportation, distribution of energy and wealth. All these things depend on our understanding of science and mathematics, especially algebra. Algebra is not an expensive thing to teach. But success in it clearly helps students and then adults understand abstract concepts and nature. Without leadership in science and math, we are not going to be leaders.
Parenthood.com: What can parents do to encourage their children's interest in science? Do you have any ideas for fun and easy science experiments that can be done at home?
Bill Nye: The main thing is to let kids play around and make things. Allow them to make a mess, but insist that cleaning it up is part of the process. After you fix the bicycle, put the tools away. After you discover carbon dioxide gas given off by yeast, clean the bottles and pans. As far as fun demonstrations to do at home, well I can't help it - read the new issues of the Planetary Report, the Planetary Society's magazine, and my books. I guarantee those demonstrations work, and they provide insight into the topic at hand. My next book is quite an undertaking, it's about general science for everyone. But, I'm also planning a children's book about space and a cookbook for kids that helps you (the reader) understand the science in food and food preparation.
Parenthood.com: Our friends at the USA Science & Engineering Festival sent us your way - what impact do events like these have on community awareness of the importance of STEM education?
Bill Nye: As a child, I was deeply affected by the visiting NASA scientist, when I was in Lafayette Elementary School in Washington. He dipped things in liquid oxygen, broke them and burned them. Oh, that was wonderful. I strongly believe that every opportunity to celebrate science with young people is an opportunity to change the world. You just never know who is going to get the lifelong passion that my colleagues and I have. If we get the expected 100,000 kids coming through the Science & Engineering Festival, it sure better be our job to show a few of them how cool the process of science is. If you have a better one, let me know, but I believe the process of science is the best idea humans have ever had. And humans have had a lot of ideas. But this process that helps us understand nature and our place in it has changed the world more quickly than anything you can think of. What could be more exciting? I hope the President and the First Lady are able to come by the Festival. He is the leader of the world these days; he has the power, by just giving our society a nudge, to help create our next generation of scientists and especially engineers. We can change the world.
by Amy McCarthy