"Mom, why are all sugar crystals the same shape, now matter what size they are?" my nine-year-old daughter wanted to know. On our kitchen table were small piles of tiny white crystals and larger amber "raw" sugar that we sometimes use as a crunchy topping when baking. "Let's find out," I answered. "How do you think we can do that?"
Our kids ask us lots of questions. How we parents answer them can make all the difference in their future success -- and our nation's.
With concerns about U.S. math and science scores, we're seeing a series of initiatives to improve performance in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), which aim to help keep America competitive in a global economy. These include the Next Generation Science Standards, the White House's Educate to Innovate and its public-private initiative Change the Equation, and many others. But as a mother of two daughters, now 13 and 17, I know that the equation will not add up without us parents. As the old adage (almost) goes, science starts in the home. That's why I'm excited to bring Scientific American's work in sharing simple, easy and fun "Bring Science Home" science activities for families to the USA Science & Engineering Festival on April 26 and 27 in hopes of getting kids excited about science and technology.
Kids are actually born scientists. As any parent knows who's watched Junior drop a series of different things from his high chair to see what happens when they fall, children are innate experimenters. That kind of critical thinking -- forming an idea about how the world works and then testing it to see if it's true -- is the foundation of the scientific method.
Youngsters also are naturally social and adaptive -- and what today's culture makes clear to them, between "teaching to the test" in schools and the general impression of scientists as aloof brainiacs -- is that science and math are not for them. Little ones form such attitudes surprisingly early. In studies, kindergarteners already think science is hard and something for other, older kids. When asked to draw researchers, even five-year-olds will make pictures of white-coated men.
But science is not beyond them, and it's not beyond us parents either. That's because science is not test tubes in a lab but a way of thinking that you can apply to every facet of life. Put simply, it's humankind's best invention for finding the truth. There's a financial upside, too: Nine of today's 10 top income-earning jobs are science jobs, according to the 2009 PayScale College Salary Report.
How can non-scientist parents do a better job of inspiring their sons and daughters? When your child has a question about how the world works -- and we all know they have plenty -- try this simple thing. Ask: "How does that happen?" and "How can we find out?" A five-minute chat over dinner is all you need, but you can also counter rainy-day doldrums by turning it into an activity. At the time, my nine-year-old and I ended up testing whether all sugar crystals are actually the same shape (we had fun making rock candy), and then found out how crystals have a regular lattice structure inside that creates their squashed-brick-like form.
I am no Einstein -- I don't even have a science degree -- but my daughters (now 13 and 17) think science is cool. Why? Science is just part of their lives.
Parents, we remind the kids to say "please" and "thank you." We make sure they look both ways before crossing the street. We can also help them learn to think about the world scientifically -- just by making some time for science in our everyday lives.
So I hope you can spend a little time with science by joining us at the Scientific American booth at the USA Science & Engineering Festival. And, after that, parents can continue to take the simple step of bringing science home through a series of free online "Bring Science Home" activities from Scientific American that they and their kids can enjoy together, usually in under an hour with ingredients or items they already have around the house.
It doesn't take a lot of effort to make a lot of difference in your children's lives. But it's a lot of fun!
Mariette DiChristina is Editor-in-Chief and Senior Vice President of Scientific American, the longest continuously published magazine in the United States.