Sunday, March 21, 2010

Expanding Your Horizons: Tween Science Pep Rally

Yesterday I performed a science pep rally for about 200 tween girls at the annual Expanding Your Horizons conference held at Sonoma State University. According the the EYH website, "Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics™ conferences nurture girls' interest in science and math courses to encourage them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.' Girls (and some boys too) are bussed in from several counties for a half day of workshops with fun hands-on activities lead by real live female scientists and engineers. The conference ends with a motivational talk by a woman scientist - an astronaut if they are really lucky - who shares their story of how they beat the odds and became a successful scientist. Or, on a few rare occasions, they get a science singer, me, who does something entirely different.

I couldn't tell them the true story of how I got into physics, because quite frankly, I am not a good role model. I hated school, never studied, and math and science bored me to tears. I flunked algebra, got a D in physics and refused to take biology because I would not dissect animals. I didn't get turned on to science and math until I was in college and it was through my own curiosity that brought me to it, not a graduation requirement. In retrospect, I regret not studying math and science (and music) in high school because being a delayed science learner created a real and permanent mental handicap for me. If the parts of a young forming brain involved in 'higher' mathematical reasoning are not used, then the neural pathways in those areas are not established or are pruned away: If you don't use it, you lose it. I surmise that since I wasn't using those parts of my brain, I'm missing some essential neural connections for doing math and science.  My neural net connections are seriously twisted and though I'm still smart and able to do science, it takes me more time to work problems through my funky mental wiring, which is a serious handicap in the academic world of timed exams and cognitive conformity. Luckily, my plastic brain compensated by giving me a holistic intuition about nature and a crazy knack for putting science into song and theater. My brain is so weirdly wired that I prepped for my graduate oral exams by writing songs about Maxwell's equations (no, I did not sing during the exams but I wish I had!)

I use multiple learning styles for my multiple intelligences but I wonder what value that has in academia because by the time I sing, dance, write, mime and paint the derivation of electromagnetic waves in vacuum, the proverbial bell has rung and time has run out. Sadly, our educational system doesn't allow time for true inquiry based learning or for 'different learners' to think differently if that means to take more time to think. Hence, I do believe that had I studied math and science in high school while my brain was forming or pruning those fast neural connections that process higher math reasoning, I would have suffered less about feeling too dumb to do science and done better in academia. Would I still be a freaky-artist-science-geek? I believe so but the point is, my story is way too messy and complicated to tell tweens in a 30 minute science pep rally. So I gave the following talk instead, this is part of it, as best as I can recall, and with some editing.

(I'm taking out he call and response type pep rally yelling that helps to engage and settle down seat twitching tweens such as 'Shout if you are having fun,' "Shout if you are from Napa County," etc. Every question in my talk is actually a call to the audience to shout the answer back, but I don't know how to make that work in a writing. Note: call and response is critical for a successful tween science pep rally!)

Hi everybody! It is great to be here today to celebrate Expanding Your Horizons! Hey! Do you know what that phrase means? What to they mean by 'your horizon'? They mean your future! And this conference is all about expanding your future potential by learning math, science and engineering. At the workshops today, you learned about science and technology and the many exciting careers you can have in those fields. You heard that if you want to purse a career in science or engineering, it is absolutely necessary for you to study math and science, right? It is true - if you want to be a research scientist, or environmental engineer, or an astronaut, or a doctor, or a math teacher, or a CSI chemist, or any science or tech job, you have to know math and science. Well what I want to talk with you about today is that even if you don't pursue a career in science or engineering, you still need to know math and science. EVERYBODY needs to know math and science, even if you want to be a professional football player or dancer. Every person needs to know math and science in order to live in our high tech scientific world.

Now many of you may be thinking or saying: "I like science but I am not good at it. I can't do math because it is too hard. My brain doesn't think that way." Well you are partly right, math and science are hard and anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. But what isn't hard that is worth pursuing? Is it easy to be a great dancer? Do you wake up one day and instantly you can play the guitar? Of course not. It takes practice, practice and more practice to do anything difficult well. But you'd be wrong in saying that your brain doesn't think mathematically. Every one's brain is mathematical. It is a fact. Every time you reach your arm out to catch a ball, your brain is doing a zillion calculations to put your hand in the right place at the right time. Math was invented by human brains just like your brains. But it takes practice to learn it, to figure out how the language of math, of how our brains reason, and put it on a piece of paper as an algebraic equation. Do you wake up one day and -bang- you can speak another language perfectly? Of course not! It takes practice and a lot of embarrassing mistakes to learn a new language, but you do it, so you can live in a world where that language is spoken. Math is like that. If you learn math, then you can live in the world of science, which is the world we live in. And math and science are like sports. The more you practice, the stronger and smarter you get. But it isn't easy and it takes time. So be kind and patient with yourself as you would be learning any other challenging and worthwhile thing.

OK, so what if all that doesn't mean beans to you. You are just not interested in math and science and couldn't care less about it. Well let me try to make it more personal, and more scary. There are real and serious problems you will face in your life, whether you like it or want it or not that will involve science, and if you do not become scientifically literate, and by 'literate' I mean to be able to read, speak and engage in conversation and debate about science, you will be in trouble. Our modern high tech world is dependent on science and technology, isn't it? As an adult you will have to make many decisions that require scientific literacy. For example, what if a big company wants to build a factor in your neighborhood that puts waste into the air and water? They say it is safe but others say it is toxic especially children. How do you figure it out? Who do you believe? Or, what if there is a new experimental drug your grandma can try to cure her cancer, how can you decide if it is worth the risks? Or what if people tell you nuclear power plants are safe and you should vote to pay for them? Should you eat genetically modified food? What about giving your children vaccines? What science should our tax dollars pay for? What would you vote for? Solving global warming? Cancer research? Finding life on other planets? What about building big solar energy collectors in space? Good idea or bad idea? What if you are on a jury and have to decide if the crime scene evidence warrant putting a criminal to death? And a million other scientific questions you will face in the future that are indeed a matter of life and death. A sad fact of our times is that people lie to sell stuff and get rich. You know it is true. And so I ask you, how are you going to know who is lying or telling the truth? How are you going to handle these complicated issues if you are scientifically illiterate? Will you just believe the white guy in the white coat? Turn over all your power to the so called 'experts'? "Oh, my brain doesn't think that way, you decide for what is safe for me and my baby." Come on! Do you want to live that way? You don't have to.

I think it would be GREAT if you decide to pursue a career in science and engineering, it is a very rewarding job and I encourage you to consider it. But quite frankly, I don't care what career you choose, you still need to know math and science. What I do care about is that you become smart, well educated empowered citizens who have the knowledge and ability to understand the complicated scientific world world you live in, so that you can make educated decisions, and if necessary speak scientific truth to power, to protect yourself, your family, your community and our planet. If you want to be a player in the expanding horizon of this high tech scientific world, you need to be scientifically literate and that means you need to study math and science at least through high school. You need to study math and science NOW. And here is why.

Let me tell you a little about how brains work. Right now your brain is growing and forming. As far as we know, it does most of the growing and forming until you are in your early 20s so now is a critical time in your brain development. What you lean now, will affect the way your brain works for the rest of your life. When you learn something, neural pathways and connections are formed for that sort of thinking to happen. The more you use those connections, the stronger they become. It is sort of like muscles - the more you exercise them, the stronger they get. It may hurt at first but the more you lift weights, the easier it gets. Similarly, the more you think about math, the stronger those neural connections get and the easier math gets. Learning math hurts at first because your brain is changing shape, just like your muscles in your arm! That is why it is so important that you are patient with yourself and trust that the more you do math, the easier and less painful it will get. However, there is a very significant way in which brains are not like muscles. With muscles, if you stop exercising and get weak, you can just work out again and build the muscles back up. You don't permanently lose your strength. With brains on the other hand, if you stop using the neural connections to do math, the brain literally prunes them away. If you don't use it, you lose it! Now, clearly you can still learn math as an older adult, but, trust me, it is so much more difficult. The brain is less plastic when it is older - it is harder to teach an old dog new tricks! Therefore, it is very important FOR THE REST OF YOUR THINKING LIVES that you learn math and science NOW while your brains are forming these neural connections of complex reasoning. Learning math and science while you are young will make you smarter for the rest of your lives, whether or not you become scientists and engineers.

You are growing up in very exciting and complicated times. On one hand, technological development and scientific discoveries are occurring at what seems to be speed of light rates - it is hard to keep up and make sense of it all! And at the same time, we are swamped with a lot of bad news of doom and gloom about our environment: global climate change, polluted air and oceans, fish too toxic to eat, species extinction, the list goes on and on - it can be overwhelming and downright depressing! And it is perplexing: if science and technology are so advanced and are progressing so quickly, why do we still have so many environmental problems? If we are so smart, why are we so stupid?

The fact is, very little science and technology is used to solve our environmental problems today. Most science and technology is used to make stuff to sell and make money for corporations. Your cellphones, computers, video games, the internet, all those high tech goodies come at a very high environmental price. For the past hundred years or so since the beginning of the industrial revolution, our species, humans, have been living like a locust on this planet, consuming everything in our path towards so-called "progress." We chop down forests, over fish the oceans, consume all the natural resources we can to build stuff to sell to get rich, and then dump our waste in the air and water. These natural resources will not last forever and the environment can not absorb pollution forever. We have belched so much carbon dioxide into the air from cars and factory smoke stacks that we are changing the planet. Global climate change threatens the health and habitats of not only humans but also of all the other creatures who live on Earth: plants, animals & insects. The cost for keeping the high tech engine of capitalism going is the degradation of our environment. Although the irresponsible use of technology is largely to blame for our environmental problems, we must use science and technology in new creative and responsible ways to solve them.

It is a very sad fact is that even though you didn't cause any of these problems, you are the ones who will inherit them, and either your generation will fix them (if they can be fixed) or you will pass them down to your own children. And that is why is so very vital for you to be scientifically literate, so you can understand science and technology and how we can use it responsibly to help solve the environmental problems facing us. So whether you become a scientist or an engineer, or a dancer or farmer or cook, every person in this room must learn math and science and become scientifically literate. It will make you smarter and it will empower you with the knowledge you will need in the expanding horizons of our future.

Well, that's about all I have time to recall for now. I also talked about lovons and spaceship earth, and hell, I also sang 7 songs! It takes much longer to write this than it does to say it, that is for sure. Stay tuned, maybe someday I'll video tape one of these shows and put it online. For some of the songs I did perform, check out my youtube channel: einsteinangel