Getting Students Excited About Science

Shirley Ann Jackson is the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A theoretical physicist, she has been described by Time magazine as "perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science." She was the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973, and has served as a professor of theoretical physics at Rutgers University and as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  In 2007 the National Science Board awarded her the Vannevar Bush Award for "a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy." Jackson also serves on the boards of a number of companies and organizations, including the New York Stock Exchange, IBM, FedEx, Marathon Oil, and the Smithsonian Institution.

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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What inspired you to become a scientist?

Shirley Ann Jackson:
Well, as I was growing up, I was always interested in math and always interested in the world around me; natural phenomena.  That tended to express itself in being interested in things and nature so I would collect live bumblebees and do experiments with them that related to changing their diets, their habitats, the amount of sunlight and darkness they were exposed to.  Then I would add in wasps and yellowjackets and I’d try to understand how the different species behaved; levels of aggression, what changed with diet. And I’d keep very detailed notebooks.  And then I’d keep them in jars lined up under our back porch, we had a crawlspace. 

But as I went along, I got more and more interested on the mathematics side and things that related to the physical world.  Although, I really didn’t decide to become a physicist until I was a freshman in college. 

Question: What can we do to encourage more young people to go into the sciences?

Shirley Ann Jackson: One, I think we can just introduce young people early on to the wonders and the beauty of science, and its ability to help them understand things to explain things to do hands on as well as minds on kinds of activities early on.  To build that both formally into the curricula in K-through-12 education; but also outside of classroom experiences including making use of more community-based resources like museums and the like. 

We have to excite them, that’s the point.  We have to excite them about the wonders of the natural world.  We have to invite them by letting them know that they, too, can become scientists or engineers or work in these fields or at least have an understanding of what science is and what it does.  But also have people understand that there are interesting pathways and good ones today for careers and that they get to work on really cool stuff and really important things.  And I think all of these are the ways.  But then, if we want to go beyond that to look at more structural issues, the single most important rate-limiting step has to do with having good teachers.  Because a good teacher makes all the difference in a young person’s life.

And so we have to, then, have teachers who are well-prepared.  Who, if they were not education in the sciences and engineering, have professional development programs that can bring them more up to speed on these things?  We have to have more degreed teachers—teachers with actual degrees in science, mathematics and engineering.  And so really having good teachers, well prepared teachers and we should hold up the best examples.  The best teachers and what they do and have more testimony to that affect.  But then the media has a role in terms of how scientists and engineers and mathematicians are portrayed. And the scientists and engineers and mathematicians tend to be portrayed in a somewhat exaggerated way in the media.  Now one could argue that all characters in a fictional story have some degree of exaggeration of whatever they’re characteristics are, but I think we’ve tended to have a somewhat distorted view; although programs like "Numbers" I find pretty interesting because they kind of change the construct of it.  But I think the media has a role. 

I think, obviously, parents, but in the end, teachers, strong curricula and then holding up examples; whether it’s the Google guys or the person who helped to decode DNA.  These are the kinds of things that I think can all help; but preparation is what is always needed because to do science takes a cumulative background.  You can’t do advanced mathematics if you don’t know calculus; if you don’t know trigonometry, geometry, algebra and you certainly can’t do those things if you can’t add, subtract, multiply, divide, no fractions, et cetera.

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman


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