People often ask me how I got interested in science. I wish I could answer that I had a mentor when I was a child, that a biologist or a physicist visited my school when I was in third grade and transformed my life. But that's not what happened to me and, sadly, not what happens to the vast majority of children.
There are, of course, exceptions, but the fact is that STEM professionals (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) rarely visit schools, public or private, to speak about what they do and why they do it. The majority don't even volunteer to speak at their own children's schools, something I find absurd.
My own interest in science was a happy accident, something that came from inside, a sort of innate urgency to find out how the world works and how we can better relate to Nature.
I had the good fortune to spend summers at my grandparents' house in the mountains not far from Rio de Janeiro. It was a lush and dramatic setting, with highly eroded peaks covered in tufts of tropical forest. Darwin — during his voyage on the HMS Beagle — was enchanted by similar terrain. I recall asking my father, a dentist, how could rock — being so hard — become so sculpted.
"Time does it, a time so vast that it would be like a swallow taking a sip every day to empty a whole ocean," he once said.
I collected rocks and insects in those mountains. I hunted bats (the vampire kind!), fished, hiked, ran away from poisonous snakes, went up countless trees and explored thick jungles with a machete in hand. My exposure to Nature was direct; it was part of my childhood.
Only later, when I started science classes in school, did I begin to understand that there was a method perfectly suited to studying the world and its creatures, a method that could become a career, a way of life.
At 13 I knew I would do something related to science or engineering. And this without ever talking to, or even seeing, a single scientist! My inspiration, as with the vast majority of children everywhere, came from books, TV shows and family. Ask yourself: what percentage of children under 13 have ever seen or listened to a scientist in person? I don't have a number, but I imagine it is appallingly small.
I think this has to change, that every school, public or private, should have a program bringing in STEM professionals once or twice a year to talk about their research and their professional lives. How does a mathematician make a living? What does a biologist do? These visits should include graduate students, from astronomy to zoology.
Granting agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and NASA are now requiring some sort of outreach as part of their funding packages, which is great. Still, there should be a much stronger partnership between schools, universities, research centers and industry to increase the exposure of young students to a life in the sciences.
Picture 20 fourth graders watching a visual presentation that captures the stunning world of particle accelerators! How about the importance of chemistry in our everyday lives, or the budding reality of robotics, how to build satellites, detect black holes and exoplanets or decode a genome? Face-to-face encounters help drive home the fact that science pretty much defines the world in which we live.
I often go to schools in the United States and Brazil, speaking with students of all ages. I see their eyes brighten when I talk about how huge the universe is, how there is a giant black hole in the middle of the Milky Way, the prospects for life beyond Earth and why the Higgs boson interesting. Even teenagers make an effort to listen, their curiosity piqued by the possibility of a future that sometimes sounds impossible.
In a recent meeting of the American Physical Society, where I serve as a general councillor, we discussed a report on the need for better-prepared high school teachers. The number of universities preparing science teachers across the country needs to grow significantly. Regional centers in physics and science education should be created as part of an overall effort to promote a sharp improvement in pedagogy. In short, there are pressing needs in both number and quality when it comes to teaching science in the U.S.
But let's not overlook a very simple step that we can take right now, without delay: scientists, engineers and mathematicians can volunteer to share their professional experiences with schools in their neighborhoods. A couple of visits a year — a few hours of time — could inspire thousands to pursue a life in the sciences and impact our collective future.