Rediscovering the Joy of Science


First published in AWIS Magazine, Volume 29, issue 3 (Summer 2000)

This spring, I was asked to be a judge for a school science fair in New Haven, Connecticut. I was assigned to judge the 3rd-4th grade team projects in the physical sciences category. As I browsed through the rows of project displays, I learned how nails rust, how to use a helium balloon to remove an obnoxious sibling, and how to program a remote control car. In addition to the scientific methods used and creativity exhibited by these young scientists, what struck me most was their attitude toward science. The best single word to describe their outlook was "joy."

I returned to the lab later that day and went in search of "joy" among my colleagues. Much to my dismay, I found that all of us, including me, had lost sight of the delights of science behind clouds of worry. The graduate students were worried about their theses, the postdocs were worried about future job possibilities, and the technicians were worried about gathering the data necessary for an upcoming grant renewal. I know that we all once experienced great joy in science; if not, we would have chosen a different career.

Of course, joy still surfaces occasionally from our inevitable stresses and concerns, making an appearance following an exciting experimental result or after a paper has been accepted for publication. While these peaks are marvelous, they rarely sustain us for more than a few days. How, then, can we increase our everyday enthusiasm? Perhaps 3rd graders have the answer. With this in mind, I asked a class of 3rd graders to write about what science means to them. Here are some of the responses I received:

"Science is important to me because then we will learn all about plants that are in the world. Plants are important because they give us oxygen to breathe. They give us food so we could live. Plants give medicine to people. Plants can also feed the animals. A botanist is a scientist that studies plants. They are very important scientists."

"Science is important to me because we can learn about what a geologist does. Paleontologists are special kinds of geologists. They look for fossils. Geologists work in some very exciting places. Some go to Antarctica where it is cold all year. I think it is fun to be a geologist."

"The reason is science is important to me is because I want to be an oceanographer. I want to know what it is like to be in the ocean. I want to see what the plants and animals look like in the ocean. An oceanographer is important because if you got bitten by a fish you would know if it was poison if you asked an oceanographer. Without the oceans almost all life on earth would die. Animals on land depend on the oceans for food and oxygen too."

"Science is important to me because if there weren't any scientists there wouldn't be any doctors. We wouldn't be able to live because there wouldn't be any medicine when we need it. No one would know how to make medicine and many people and animals would die and then we would not see very many people or animals in the world."

"Science is important to me because I can learn about nature. I want to learn about nature because when people put trash in the water scientists find out what trash it is that hurts the fish and they will tell the people not to put it in the water any more. I like nature and I want to learn how to keep the water in the rivers and the oceans clean for the plants and fish."

"When I grow up I want to be a paleontologist. I could go to many places to find old rocks and fossils and dinosaur bones that were there millions of years ago. Paleontologists are very smart peoples. They show us what life was like long ago and what the climate was like then. They use many really cool tools. They may use a jackhammer to break rocks and they use a compass to make maps. If I were a paleontologist I could find some rocks and fossils and bring them to the museum for all the people to look at."

"Science is important to me because it is fun. Science is fun because when you are doing science you can use equipment like a telescope, a microscope, or magnifying glasses. When you do science experiments you can learn a lot of things that you did not know before. Science is a lot of fun."

"Science is important to me because I want to know what scientists do. I want to learn about the people that travel to the moon. I want to know what astronauts do. I want to know what astronauts see in the faraway sky. I want to see what the moon looks like. Some day I want to be an astronaut so I can step on the moon. I want to be able to find out if something is about to strike the world and then I could warn people about it."

The thrill of winning a science fair is a life-long memory. One child wrote: "When you do science experiments you can learn a lot of things that you did not know before. Science is a lot of fun."

These quotations remind us of the basic incentives for becoming a scientist. These students want to become botanists to learn about plants that provide food and medication, to become paleontologists to use cool tools like jackhammers and compasses, or to become oceanographers to determine whether a fish is poisonous. Their words, their eyes, and their actions communicate their excitement and anticipation of future discoveries. Their joy is obvious.

Of course, these children are fortunate to be able to think about science in its purest sense, as a method of discovery. Professional scientists get to "discover" for a living. However, with these careers come administrative duties, obtaining funding, and publishing often. These responsibilities can overshadow "joy," at times making it almost impossible to remember our original motivations for choosing science. How can we regain our joy for science? One solution is to make an active effort to protect and maintain this precious commodity. Keep a "3rd grade perspective" when possible. Revitalize yourself by interacting with young scientists in your community. Not only will these interactions benefit you, but also they will enhance the exhilaration

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