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Who's in the Video
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."[…]

Young people need to be exposed early on to the wonders and the beauty of science.

Question: What inspired you to become a scientist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman