Encouraging Curiosity Builds the Next Generation of Scientists

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One of the traits of childhood is a curiosity about the world around you. Kids are trying to figure out how the world works, so a lot of their questions involve the word, "Why?" Parents and educators spend a lot of their time figuring out how to answer those queries succinctly and then quickly move on in order to get to other tasks like cooking supper and correctly spelling "Mississippi."

Maybe, though, adults ought to encourage kids to keep asking "Why?" even after we're tired of answering them. After all, "Why?" and "What if...?" are the cornerstones of a career in STEM. Those questions have led to the discovery of comets and the splitting of atoms and the salvation of endangered species.

STEM-field careers are rapidly growing, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasting that more than 9 million jobs in various STEM fields will be available by 2022. Family Education, iD Tech, and the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity all offer insights into possible STEM careers.

In the classroom, students explore STEM topics as early as preschool. Successful STEM literacy begins in early childhood and continues through middle school and into the teen years.

In the meantime, one key to keeping kids wondering about the world around them is to nurture those traits that make for great scientists, including problem solving and a curiosity to understand how things work. Another is to answer their questions, to the best of your abilities. Encourage learning through play and invention. Supplement classroom activities with hands-on activities at home and consider how they relate to the real world. And introduce them to the vast array of work that scientists do:

Science NetLinks' recurring blog series, 5 Questions for a Scientist, asks working scientists several questions, including what advice they have for young people interested in science. Scientists in a broad array of fields—from ecology and genetics to engineering, cybersecurity, and educational technology—offer their suggestions for nurturing that interest and potentially turning it into a career.

Science NetLinks also offers video Conversations with a Scientist, showcasing the scientists whose work led to the demotion of Pluto as a planet and to more streamlined designs for Naval submarines and more efficient windmills for renewable energy, among others.

The American Chemical Society has put together Spellbound, a collection of videos that looks at the childhoods of scientists to find the moments of curiosity, role models, and other life experiences that made them the scientists they are today.

For students whose interest may lie more with manipulating words than with hands-on activities, look to Science NetLinks' Spotlight on Science Writers blog series, where award-winning science writers and illustrators share the story behind their books.

Finally, a great way to encourage kids to utilize their natural curiosity is to bring a scientist into your classroom. The AAAS STEM Volunteer Program pairs classroom educators and volunteers working and retired scientists in the Washington, D.C., area to promote STEM literacy and encourage students to consider STEM careers. Their website includes links to similar programs around the country.


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