“How do I get my kids more interested in science?” It’s one of the most common questions Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson gets, and it’s the one that boggles his mind more than many of the complicated questions he seeks to answer in his work as a renowned astrophysicist.
That’s because he’s not actually worried about the kids. He has it on good authority that they are already interested in STEM subjects. “They’re born scientists,” he says, noting how, from a young age, they are already turning over rocks and plucking petals off of flowers. “They are always doing things that are by and large destructive, but that is what exploration is. This is what kids do.”
It’s the parents, he posits, who are the problem.
“In the interest of preserving a child’s safety, a parent will restrict behaviors that put their health at risk, and this is to be expected,” Tyson tells Motherly. “But when a parent further restricts a child’s behavior just to maintain order and neatness in the household, in almost every case, the parent has squashed an act of curiosity or creativity.”
Take pots and pans, for example. “At some point in a toddler’s life, the child discovers the low kitchen cabinet,” he says. “We all know what happens next. All the pots and pans get dragged out to the floor, and the toddler begins to bang on them with metal ladles and wooden spoons. This not only gets the pots and pans dirty, it creates an unpleasant cacophony. The frustrated parent immediately commands the child to stop making such a racket. And doing so has squashed an ongoing experiment in acoustics.”
And if a kid reaches in the fridge and pulls out an egg and starts juggling it, what’s the first thing a parent says? “Stop playing with that egg!”
Tyson’s advice is to go ahead and let children find out what happens next. “When the egg drops, it breaks,” he says. “This is a physics experiment rapidly turned into a biology experiment... the yolk oozes out. ‘Wait, how does this gooey yolk become a chicken?’” By never letting their child play with the egg, parents unknowingly stifle an opportunity to love learning, and for what?
“What did the egg cost you?” Tyson asks. “Twenty cents?”
Science, he continues, is not so much about what you know as it is about the journey to knowing.
“That journey requires boundless curiosity, which all children have in abundance, and only some of whom retain it into adulthood,” he says. “We don’t have enough parents who understand or know how to value the inquisitive nature of their own kids.”
Of course, even with parents, like his, who nurture a child’s natural tendencies toward scientific exploration, external factors have proven to impose limits on a continued interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Forces persist in society that suppress STEM ambitions,” Tyson says. “Some subtle, others overt. In graduate school I was stopped twice by the police when entering the physics building, but never when entering the gym.”
In addition to disparities among people of color, women also make up only 28 percent of the STEM workforce, with particularly low turnouts in physics and engineering.
“The bias of culture and society judging who you are and what you should be when you grow up remains a burden for all those whose ambitions do not align with the status quo,” he says. “The struggle continues.”
To help further narrow those gaps, Tyson—who will teach kids about the mysteries of space during a live class as part of BYJU’s first virtual summer camp—suggests a few other ways parents can encourage a lifelong love of STEM:
1. Don’t always answer their questions
“Memorizing the correct answer to a question is not as important as having the brain wiring that values the journey to the correct answer,” he says. “When your kid asks you a question, even if you know the answer, your reply should be, ‘let’s discover the answer together.’”
2. Visit your local science center
“Research in education has revealed that we remember field trips from childhood long into adulthood,” he says. “Take as many trips as your schedule allows to visit museums because the impact of this exposure on a child’s ambition knows no bounds.”
3. Make “geeky” friends
“Among some circles of friends, it might not be cool to be geeky,” Tyson admits. “Social pressures can be strong, but there’s emotional strength in numbers, and there’s also shared enlightenment.”
4. Never underestimate the power of pop culture
“In the era of cool scientists of all genders,” he says that the numbers of kids showing sustained interest in science fields through middle grades has improved. “So we should never underestimate the power of pop culture, like TV shows such as CSI and all its incarnations, to influence a student’s ambition.”
5. Don’t assume you’re too late
Tyson was by no means studying planets as a preschooler. His interest in the universe manifested when he was nine years old, on a family visit to his local planetarium, the Hayden Planetarium, where he now serves as a director. He admits he didn’t get his first telescope until he was 12 years old: “Upon seeing this interest, my parents helped to nurture it.”