"Just think about it: maybe the apparent lapse in American kids’ interest in science and engineering could be reversed by the popularity of online videos depicting wacky prank-experiments where kids blow things up, rewire gadgets and ‘pimp out’ vehicles. Clearly, science doesn’t have to be relevant for it to be cool."
The piece covers a surge in science toys being introduced at this year’s Toy Fair. I read this article thinking it would be good to link to over on Kid Scientist, but but the time I got to the end I wanted to slap somebody. The writer (Caroline McCarthy of CNET News.com) seems to imply that science education necessarily needs to be boring or else it’s not "relevant". Confidential to Caroline: making science seem cool to kids is an incredibly difficult job, most of our educators have been sucking mightily at it for a generation now, and "relevant" (whatever that means) versus "cool" is a totally false dichotomy.
If you’ve convinced yourself that something has to be boring or officially sanctioned to be intellectually rigorous, then you’ve lost the battle right there. If I have to buy my girl a "pimp my ride" engineering kit to get her interested in how engines work, then I’ll buy it for her, no question.
One of my triumphal moments as a curious kid scientist was when I was in seventh grade and we moved into a new house across town. Back in those days, we didn’t have the newfangled wireless telephones. Phones used to be connected to the house using wires, of all things, and you had to pay the phone company money to activate new phone extensions in your house.
But after we moved in, I noticed that in my new room, the phone wiring had already been done. I just needed to wire up the non-functional extension in the same way that the other extensions in the house were wired. A few turns of a screwdriver later, I had a diagram of the correct wiring, which I then took upstairs to activate the telephone extension in my room. (My parents were pretty surprised when I told them what I’d done, but it didn’t cost them anything, so they let me keep the phone.)
The point is, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to take a screwdriver to a phone extension at age 13 if it weren’t for my sixth grade teacher (Mike Lichtman of Verdugo Woodlands elementary in Glendale CA), who had us wire up our own telephones so we could talk to friends across the classroom. There’s two parts to this: conveying the knowledge of scientific principles to kids, and giving them permission to be curious and to hack, even if it seems like what they are learning at the moment has no practical or "relevant" applications.