21 June 2009

Fathering scientists

It's really a matter of parenting scientists, but this will appear on Father's Day. That is, suppose you're a parent and would like your child (children) to appreciate science. Not that they should become scientists -- I don't believe that this is the only career to pursue even though I did do so. (I also had my time pursuing engineering and computer science. I ended up going with the science, but it was a real question up through completing my undergraduate degree and receiving an engineering job offer.)

In this, I'll largely be drawing from examples my mother set. A good parent learns from all good parents, not just those of their own gender.

As a parent, perhaps the greatest thing you can support in your kids is the idea "The universe is a very interesting place." You don't need to know all the science yourself. It might even be a benefit if you don't. In any case, it's a family article of faith that children are born scientists -- investigators of the universe around them. When they start asking about why the sky is blue, grass green, ants are going that way, clouds are puffy rather than stringy ... cheer. You don't need to know the answers yourself. It doesn't take many years before your kids are asking questions that nobody knows the answer to. So, maybe answer where you know the answer. Where you don't, one or more of: "That's interesting. I don't know the answer. What do you think it is? How could we figure it out? Where would we search on the net?" is wonderful. The universe is incredibly interesting. If you're no great fan of insects, and find yourself parent (or, in my case, uncle) to a child who thinks they're incredibly interesting, cheer their interest. Insects are very interesting, at least to folks who study them, or maybe found fireflies pretty, and so on. In any case, I learned from my mother that you don't need to share the exact interest, and certainly don't need to know a lot about that particular thing*. The universe is interesting. That includes the parts you're not enthusiastic about yourself.

Second major thing is -- not all ideas will work out, and that's ok. "You'll think of more ideas later, and they'll be even better." Abandoning ideas that don't work out, I mentioned earlier, is one of the central skills of a scientist. If the idea doesn't work, don't spend your time 'reassuring' your child that it's 'ok that you failed'. They didn't fail, period. They successfully carried out one of the most important things a scientist can do -- test an idea and realize it doesn't work. Another better response is "Ok, since this doesn't quite work, what do you think might work instead?" Almost every idea that a scientist has, doesn't work. I doubt this is unique to science, so whether your child goes anywhere near science it's a good skill to have -- to have your idea not work, and to take it in stride and move on to the next idea.

I didn't even remember the example myself, but in my 20s or so, mom mentioned my 'blood theory of life'. I was 4 at the time, she said. The theory was, "We all have a finite amount of blood. When it runs out, say because of a trauma like a car accident or a blood disease like leukemia destroying healthy blood cells, you die." (I did know about leukemia at that age.) I don't exactly remember the responses (hey, I was 4, and 4 was ... several ... years ago), but I'm positive it wasn't "my what a wonderful idea". It was, I'm sure, in the vein of "That doesn't work because bone marrow makes more blood cells, so the supply isn't limited." Far better answer. Told me the idea didn't work, and told me something new that I could then think about more. Wow. There's even more to learn about the universe! And, it is possible for me to learn it!

This is another major skill to encourage in your children. "You may not know or understand something now, but you can learn it." Maybe they have to devote some time or effort, but it can be done. Things are possible, and regardless of where you are today, in time you can get where you'd like. Again, nothing unique to science about this. And, for that reason, a good reason to encourage it with respect to science. The skill, learning more stuff, is needed for almost everything. In science, finding out more about the universe -- that your child finds interesting -- the rewards follow more immediately from the effort than might be in other areas. In sports, if your child loves any healthy sport, support that. Skills can transfer, most especially the skill of training to do their sport well. Later, when some other sport becomes the greater interest, this overarching skill of training to do better will transfer. Same for study, practice, learn in science transferring to any other academic area. And, though I haven't seen it as often, between the sports and academics.

*I'll embarrass mom a little. She knew, and knows, far more than she has ever laid claim to. But, the key is regardless of how much she knew, she could never have hoped to answer all questions I asked. Same way that regardless of how much I know, I could never hope to answer all the questions my daughter has asked. As a parent, for us both, the key was, help your child learn more. Encourage that desire to learn more. Support the skills to learn more.

Additional support doesn't need to be expensive. Go for walks, look at the sky (works both day and night), visit the library, tour the internet with your child (perhaps at the library). An inexpensive telescope or microscope, or rock kit, or bug collecting kit, and so on can all be nice additions. But they're not necessary. If you do get things like this, it's a good idea to match them up to your child. A child interested in the stars will be thrilled with a reasonable telescope, while a child interested in insects ... not so much. Go with the flow here, a matter of good parenting anyhow.

Chances are that your child won't become a scientist. That's fine. What they're very likely to do, however, is become interested, informed people. And that's not only fine, but vital. And you'll get to spend time with them, and hear them being enthusiastic about their latest discovery for years while they grow up.


John Mashey said...

And then there are interesting hybrid programs, like BS + MBa @ Penn State, for folks who don't think they fit as actual scientists, but like being involved with it.

Robert Grumbine said...

Many more routes than that. Not least being mathematics and engineering. Also the math/science/engineering aware MBA (Northwestern University has an Engineering/MBA program).

Or the math/science/engineering route in to law. I don't know of any specialized programs for it, but my wife (a lawyer) tells me that it's a pretty hot area. Even better if you go in to intellectual property.

But I confess, I'm thinking more of people who in adulthood read an article in a paper (blog) and have enough learning to be seeing whether it's a good report. And, if needed, to follow up with a bit of further research to decide what, if anything, it means for their next vote, or purchase. This part is universally important in a modern society. Taking jobs in science-related areas ... some will, some won't.

jg said...

Thanks for this post. One caveat: I'm in an astronomy club and one error I always have to correct is the parent who bought a $50 (or cheaper) telescope and wonders why it doesn't work. The simple answer is that such cheap telescopes don't work.

I had a good experience related to your topic. My daughter loved dinosaurs and palaeontology till two years ago when she completely swore off dinosaurs in favor of horses. Palaeontology--maybe, but only if it involved the evolution of the horse. So last night she saw me reading Nature (18 Jun 09) about a newly discovered ceratosaur whose hand clarifies how digits were lost in therapods and later in birds. After studying the chart in the article, she declared that the two digits of a tyrannosaur's front limbs are probably digits 2 and 3 instead of 1 and 2, based on the pattern of digit reduction shown in the bird.

I'm looking for an easy way to test this (ruling out digging up our own transitional fossil). I'm also looking for sources that can explain bone anatomy, so I can check her work.

I'm mostly sharing my adventure, and not asking for anything, but would welcome an shortcuts or advice.


Robert Grumbine said...

There can be good $50 telescopes. The galileoscopes were signifcantly less than that and were ok. (At least Phil Plait said so, and he's not the easiest judge.) I agree that you generally won't find them, but after consulting with, say, an area astronomy club you should be able to get your best bang for buck. That may well be a pair of binoculars, which it's easier to find reasonable quality for $50 (or even less).

Good luck with your adventure. No ideas here, except to support that the adventure is the thing.

Good thing you were doing, and parents can do generally: Let your kids see you read.

Alastair said...

jg I am not a palaeontologist, but do find your problem interesting.

Horses and cows have evolved to have one and two toes respectively, both retaining toe three. So it seems that toes disappear from the outer edges simultaneously in evolution.

My first thought that might help, is that you investigate the evolution of toes in mammals,as they may have parallels with dinosaurs. Then you can apply the techniques that are used for mammals to the dinosaurs.


Cheers, Alastair.