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Originally published May 15, 2011 at 5:24 PM | Page modified May 16, 2011 at 7:02 AM

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Jerry Large

Astrophysicist has plan for drawing kids into science

Neil deGrasse Tyson has an idea how to spread the passion he has for science. The astrophysicist, TV host, radio personality and author was in Seattle last week, speaking at the University of Washington. We talked while he ate a feta-and-pesto omelet at the Continental restaurant in the U District.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Neil deGrasse Tyson has an idea how to spread the passion he has for science.

The astrophysicist, TV host, radio personality and author was in Seattle last week, speaking at the University of Washington. We talked while he ate a feta-and-pesto omelet at the Continental restaurant in the U District.

Despite all his public exposure, Tyson told me he isn't on a science-education mission, that he's still anchored in doing actual science. But talking and writing about science is what he's best known for and that hasn't been bad for him or for science. One of the students the UW asked to introduce him is an astrobiology graduate student because she was inspired by Tyson.

And mission or not, he has a plan for drawing more young people into the sciences, and it grows from his own story.

Unlike a lot of folks, he doesn't think we need to goad kids into science, or create star teachers to nurture them.

"Getting kids interested in science is not the challenge," he said. "Kids are born interested in science." The challenge is to get out of the way of their curiosity, let them develop their skills, use their creativity.

"There is no greater education than one that is self-driven," Tyson said. You go to the library, visit museums because you want to learn, and your quest for knowledge outside of school magnifies what happens when you are in school.

What he is describing is the path that he took.

Tyson grew up in New York City and still has his public-school report cards, which his grandmother saved and bound for him. They contain notes from teachers saying he was too social and not serious about his academics. His grades reflected that.

But when he was 9, he found something to be serious about — the stars he saw on a visit to the Hayden Planetarium, which filled him with questions about the universe. Through subsequent museum programs and library visits he homed in on the mysteries of the galaxy. He finally had a compelling reason to learn, and he did so well that today he runs the planetarium.

He thinks we can and should give today's children something to aim for.

"If you are a kid and you hear the government is looking for astronauts to go to Mars," he said, you have a reason to get excited about science, just like when he was a kid (he's 52) and the United States was shooting for the moon, except today, every kid might feel like she had a chance to be a part of the mission.

I asked whether we'd lost our enthusiasm for space. Tyson said, "Space only becomes ordinary when the frontier is no longer being breached." In the 1960s, the space program was a series of broken barriers and new accomplishments, the first docking, the first spacewalk. NASA, he said, is the only agency that can start a rush to the sciences.

He said history shows societies fund major projects for one of only three reasons: making war, making money, making monuments to the powerful. The first big push into space was justified as a matter of national defense — don't let the Russians own space.

Tyson said going to Mars is important for a host of reasons, but to get it funded he suggests emphasizing its economic impact.

It would happen like this: Congress doubles NASA's budget, then the Mars program money stimulates interest in the sciences, which stimulates innovation in multiple areas, which stimulates the economy.

Discoveries that revolutionize the world often come from unrelated investigations, he said. You can't get a kid excited by saying "fix global warming," but someone enthusiastically exploring an area she is interested in might come up with an answer for an unrelated problem. It happens all the time. So no matter what kids get excited about, their intense work will pay off in unexpected ways.

Finding a passion worked for Tyson. He is the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and a visiting research scientist and lecturer at Princeton. You can watch his TV programs, NOVA's "scienceNOW," at seati.ms/khhTw7.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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