OPINION

What the March for Science Means for Our Students

What the March for Science Means for Our Students

My name is Albert Lin. I am a scientist—and I’ll be speaking at today’s March for Science in Washington D.C.

What does it mean to be a scientist? To me, it means being an explorer, going into the unknown, and trying to make sense of it all. Science is the human quest to understand.

In 2010—after I finished grad school—I decided to follow my passion, and learn more about myself and my ancestry. Working with National Geographic, I launched a search for Genghis Khan’s tomb. Thousands of people went online and helped us survey a huge database of satellite imagery. Together, we found more than 40 tombs. Today, millions more are joining distributed computing efforts to fight cancer, study proteins, and sift through radio waves for signs of alien intelligence.

But this is just the beginning. Current technologies allow us to create shared virtual worlds, where people can work together to solve real issues—like ocean health, climate change, and energy production.

These breakthroughs, if used wisely, can make ours the greatest scientific generation the planet has ever seen. We have a chance to democratize the wonderful “aha” feeling that comes with discovery.

Best of all, these technologies can transform education. And something needs to—because science education faces a challenge. According to recent polls by Gallup and the National Science Foundation, America’s grasp of science is dismal. More than half of the country doesn't believe climate change is a serious problem, and 35 percent don’t believe humans are responsible for it. Nearly a quarter of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth—and one in five don’t know the difference between astronomy and astrology.

We know that kids love science. They’re fascinated by dinosaurs and Mars, by sharks and earthquakes. But during their teen years, many kids lose that interest. Why? Because the way they learn isn’t keeping pace with the way they live.

How do we fix this? By making science as exciting to learn as it is to do. I propose that we bring the innovations I used to search for Genghis Khan’s tomb into every classroom across the globe. These days I’m helping to pioneer an entirely new way to teach science, working with a team of storytellers, video game designers, engineers, and educators. We’re trying a new approach: virtual reality adventures that let kids engage directly with the biggest issues facing our world. Let’s turn Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the game creators loose, and reinvent the way kids learn about science. Because science education doesn’t have to be all about memorizing species—it can be about renewing the ocean.

Clearly, we can’t take every kid on a field trip to the Great Barrier Reef. But we can bring them a virtual coral reef as a living laboratory. We can drop them into the eye of a storm—or the mouth of a volcano. We can send them on a quest to explore Saturn’s atmosphere—or to discover, as I did, the tomb of an ancient warrior. Today’s kids can actually participate in meaningful scientific quests, and experience the thrill of discovery. And this makes all the difference—because even one of those “aha” moments can change your life.

This is the future of science education. Pilots and astronauts, and even architects, surgeons and NFL quarterbacks train this way. I’d like to see schools all over the country adopt this way of teaching as well. Because research shows that when people are actually immersed in a challenge, they are much more likely to engage find creative, out-of-the-box solutions.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius offered these words of wisdom: ”If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children.”

It’s time for us to plan ahead together. I believe that future generations will compare this moment with the moment we decided to land on the Moon. There’s one big difference: Today, the Earth itself is the great challenge. Our oceans and atmosphere are at a tipping point—and what we do during the next thirty years will determine the fate of life on Earth for the next 10,000.

It won’t be easy. And it is not for the faint of heart. From Galileo to Jane Goodall, many of our best scientists have put their lives on the line as rebels, risk-takers and adventurers. As my friend Bob Ballard likes to say, “Science is a full contact sport.” And at this juncture in history, the gloves must come off.

Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin (@exploreralbert) is a National Geographic Explorer, and the co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Planet3.

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