It seems odd that a young child — too young to read and too short to see over countertops — would ever gladly stare down the 30-foot-tall skeleton of a two-ton Allosaurus.
Nevertheless, many scientists such as myself and Stephen Jay Gould began our scientific careers as children doing exactly that.
As a timid, suburban kid with neither talent nor promising intellect, gazing at dinosaur fossils assured me the world was not as mundane as suburban Mesa.
Through the frustrations of learning to read in first grade, I dutifully worked to memorize the long names of all the best dinosaurs, so I could read the “grown-up” dinosaur books that didn’t even have pictures. For the first time in my life, I actually found learning to be fun and worth the effort.
If we can find the next cultural sensation to inspire a deep sense of curiosity in our youth, we can captivate the kids who only need a push in the right direction to start exercising their brains. We could raise a generation with a real drive to succeed in science.
As heartbreaking as it is to admit, the Jurassic Park-fueled dinosaur craze of my childhood is mostly gone. To me this raises a troubling issue. Children from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s felt the rush of the Space Race, and in the ’80s and ’90s we had dinosaur-mania.
What is igniting the scientific curiosity of children today?
Even modern technological advances lack the raw emotional impact of dinosaur mania.
We seldom need to worry about the naturally-gifted youngsters, but what about those average kids made from two parts mundane and one part vanilla? What about those kids that might never learn to love exploring the universe unless they’re taught by a terrifying reptile the size of a building? What about kids like me?
We’re going to need those kids if we hope to maintain our nation’s position as a hotbed of creativity and scientific innovation.
By the time children begin their careers in our dismal education system, it’s too late.
As part of a summer internship, I taught a science, math and technology class for at-risk elementary school kids. The children had an entrenched resistance toward learning. One shy girl refused to participate in any of my activities because “science is too hard and boring.”
On the last day, I led the children in a squid dissection. If you ever need to observe the full gamut of the emotions of children, make a class of them dissect a cephalopod.
Some children left the room holding back their lunch, while others were hysterically laughing. The most beautiful part of the experience was watching the shy girl not only take the initiative to dissect her table’s squid, but also follow me like a shadow asking hundreds of insightful questions.
It sickens me to admit, but with our current education system, that girl is almost certainly doomed to regain her disinterest in science. We allow bright minds like her’s to go to waste, because we failed to inspire a desire to learn within them.
Whether it requires bringing our children to more museums or some new way of introducing them to a richer world, for those kids like myself, we need to do something.
Maybe it’s time to bring dino back?
Reach the columnist at Jacob.Evans@asu.edu or follow him at @JacobEvansSP