This thought was originally written for the Pastry Box Project and has been reposted here.
As someone who has publicly stumbled into a career in space, I often get asked about my interest in space as a little girl – if I had dreams of being an astronaut growing up, if I begged to go to space camp. These questions often bother me, not for being asked, but in the way they’re asked. In a sense, they’re not even questions. The interviewer is throwing me what they believe to be a softball question, assuming with almost certainty that I’ll have a quaint heart-warming story about how I now have achieved what I always dreamed about as a kid. The reality is that I don’t have any stories like that. Space and science barely registered on my radar growing up – not due to bad schooling or uneducated parents (both were great) – but probably because I had already found a love in art and design. From the time I was an early teenager, I was obsessed with one day becoming an “Executive Creative Director”, and spent the next eight years of my life dedicated to that one goal; working my way up the corporate ladder at an interactive agency and attending art school. It was only through serendipity (i.e. unexpectedly landing a job at NASA) five and a half years ago that I awoke to my obsession with space exploration. Prior to that, I was not a space geek. I did not follow NASA news. I didn’t tweet or blog about anything in a way that would’ve made me easily identified as someone to target with science outreach efforts. And yet, had you asked me if I would love to work at NASA, my answer would have been a resounding “fuck yes, of course!”.
I suspect there are many people reading this who also don’t identify as space geeks and yet would exclaim the same answer.
There are very few endeavors focused on involving adults in science. The vast majority focus on getting kids into science, as they absolutely should. But, these endeavors view converting children into a career in science as the ultimate horizon goal. There’s a complete void when it comes to adults. Once you’ve chosen a career outside of science, you are forever lost to the science world. The focus on you ends. You’re considered an unfortunate statistic. Somehow overnight you went from being “the future” to being a “loss” on the science scoreboard. We abandon those supposed “futures” the moment they choose a career outside of science and continue to overlook them for the decades to come.
If an adult asks what they can do to get involved in science, the answer is almost always a simple “go back to school”. I actually got a chance to ask this to the late Sally Ride in 2009 and sadly received the same answer. I find this to be an incredibly cheap answer. It implies that you as you exist right now, with your unique experience, skill-set and way of looking at the world, are useless to the world of science. It implies that if you chose a career outside of science, then you chose the lesser career. This implication is amplified with women – examples of women choosing science over, say, fashion design, are touted as a huge success. These “other” careers are often mildly demonized as being shallow or a submission to gender-conditioning in society. While the public message is celebrating people choosing science as a career, the unintentional underbelly of the message is that those who didn’t chose the lesser path.
Last week, I attended an event by NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, a small program that funds some very cool science-fiction-esque prototyping, keynoted by Mythbusters’ Jamie Hyneman. Jamie seemed surprisingly nervous to talk to a group of rocket scientists, but he urged the importance of non-linear thinking and experimenting. Most people I’ve encountered in the science community applaud Mythbusters and look up to them, but they still tend to (wrongly) relegate their work and message as being intended for children, rather than for people of all ages.
Of the programs that explicitly target adults, most focus solely on improving science literacy, which is a worthwhile and important pursuit. But engaging adults in simply being informed about science, so that they may become better-educated voters, is lackluster in my eyes. In 1998, a National Science Foundation report made a remark that begins to hit the mark a little closer:
“It is important to understand how individuals assess their own knowledge of these subjects. For many purposes … it is the individual’s self-assessment of his or her knowledge that will either encourage or discourage a given behavior.”
This starts to tear down the wall of judging people based on how “well-informed” or “attentive” they are (terms that permeate these statistics reports) to science, and instead places more significance on an individual’s assessment of themselves. To go further, I’d argue that “knowledge” isn’t as telltale of a measurement as “experience”.
We engage kids in hands-on learning activities to increase their confidence and strengthen their knowledge via direct experience, rather than observation. Direct experience has a profound effect on how people assess themselves and their willingness to learn more. And yet, so many programs that “engage” adults in science rely on passive media consumption: reading, art gallery exhibits, documentaries. Many institutions seem to fully support the idea of children playing with science, while at the same time not grasping the importance of continuing “play” with adults. In a sense, kids are encouraged to be independent explorers/learners while adults are not. Somewhere along the line, the removable training wheels of our youth became bolted on for our adulthood.
All of this frustration folds in to my work on Science Hack Day. Science Hack Day is a 48-hour-all-night event where anyone excited about making weird, silly or serious things with science comes together in the same physical space to see what they can prototype within 24 consecutive hours. Designers, developers, scientists and anyone who is excited about making things with science are welcome to attend – no experience in science or hacking is necessary, just an insatiable curiosity. People organically form multidisciplinary teams over the course of a weekend: particle physicists team up with designers, marketers join forces with open source rocket scientists, writers collaborate with molecular biologists, and developers partner with school kids. Science Hack Day is inherently about mashing up ideas, mediums, industries and people to create sparks for future ideas, collaborations and inspirations to launch from.
It is not my goal to convert people to a career in science, nor is it my aim to increase scientific literacy. Both of these can be a result for some people, but that’s not my focus. My focus is to change people’s relationship with science, from one of observation to one of active contribution and participation. Having adults play with science, despite lack of understanding or knowledge, is the most empowering form of science engagement. Being able to walk away from a weekend and tell others that you experimented with biotech, explored neurological phenomena,sonified subatomic particles, or designed a website about satellites, creates a mental locket – a keepsake that affirms your ability and your right to talk about, play with, and question science. You may not still know about the inner workings of biology, neuroscience, particles or spacecrafts, but you’ve tinkered with it. You now know that if you’d ever like to tinker with science again, that there’s no barrier to entry. You didn’t need permission, you didn’t need a degree, you didn’t need l33t hacking skills, you didn’t even need a MOOC. Science shifts from being Fort Knox to being just another available material you can manipulate.
The science industry suffers in immeasurable ways from not recognizing the potential of actively working with people outside of the science community. By having a fresh set of eyes from those who solve different types of problems across a variety of industries, new concepts often emerge and go on to influence scientific processes, communication and discoveries in unexpected ways. Ivory towers can absolutely get by in continuing to stay tunnel-focused, but the forfeiture of countless clever approaches made by maintaining such a narrow path is reckless.
It’s not very different from visiting a foreign country, if only for a short time, as opposed to only having observed it in books and on television. In this case, the remote island is science, and like many places, you don’t need to speak the language in order to get by and explore. By empowering adults to play, you’re building an army of the future. The loudest advocates are not ones who are simply literate – the loudest are the ones who can proclaim that they’ve been to this island of science, they’ve talked to the locals, they’ve questioned the rituals and they’re dreaming of when they can one day visit again.