Bill Nye, the ’90s television icon, the teacher who helped kid-me understand topics like buoyancy and momentum, the man whose mission it is to help make science more accessible to the masses, is back. (Not that he ever left – he’s always been really, really busy.) These days, Nye is teaming up with Nintendo to help promote the just-released Nintendo Labo and is getting ready for the premiere of the third season of his Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves the World.
At a time when science instruction time is quickly declining in elementary schools, I asked our favourite Science Guy what parents can do to get kids excited about the subject he loves most.
When it comes to catching the science bug, that incessant hunger to understand how the natural world works, Nye says there’s a cut-off age. “When we did the Science Guy show in the 1990s, we had very compelling research that 10 years old is as old as you can be to get the so-called lifelong passion for science,” Nye says. “And I think its about as old you can be to get a lifelong passion for anything. When did you want to tell stories?” The motto in his business: “Science every day in every grade.” There’s really no such thing as “too young.”
Know the Power of Algebra
If your middle school maths teacher didn’t quite make the message clear, let Nye tell you again: Algebra is important. “Here’s one thing that has been shown: Algebra is the single most reliable indicator of whether or not a person pursues a career in maths or science,” Nye says. “It’s not clear that it’s cause and effect. It seems to be. Learning to think abstractly about numbers apparently enables you or encourages you to think abstractly about all sorts of things and so one change we could make in education is getting people interested in letters representing numbers earlier in their academic careers — that is to say, third grade rather than seventh grade.”
Focus on the Why
It’s not enough for a teacher to stand in front of a classroom and make kids recite the words “Molecules are made of atoms …” Kids learn through stories — they need to know why science is important in their lives. In all sorts of everyday situations, explain to them how science is at work. “I don’t have polio because I got the polio vaccine,” Nye says. “I am alive because my grandparents did not die of the Spanish Flu in 1918. I really like calling a car from my phone rather than wandering around looking for a pay phone to call a taxi. This is all brought to us by science.”
He goes on. “I was just talking the other day to this guy about his tires. Tires now are guaranteed to go 96,561km or 1,287,475km. When I was a kid, tires would go 24,140km and then my parents would have them thrown out and have new tires put on. We feed 7.5 billion people because of agricultural technology. It’s extraordinary. Science, people!”
For whatever career your kid might be interested in, talk about how science will be necessary — there’s just no skipping it. “Suppose you were at a party and people are standing around talking and someone says, ‘I never learned the alphabet. I thought it was arbitrary.’ Can you imagine? In the same way, we want science to be part of your education no matter what you end up doing, whether you become a lawyer or a venture capitalist or a plumber or an electrician or a care provider or a circus performer.”
Work With Video Games, Not Against Them
Nye has been hearing the question for years: “Are video games messing up my kid?”
“There’s always concern expressed about video games,” Nye says. “These kids today … When I was young, doggone it … Look, the video game is going to be in your household.” Believing that video games can help kids get excited about STEM, has teamed up with Nintendo to promote the Labo, a series of DIY cardboard kits for the Nintendo Switch. It ingeniously melds gaming with making — the screen guides kids as they build real toys they can play with, from a fishing rod to a piano to a robot suit. “It is inherently hands-on,” Nye says.
“I became a chemical engineer because I’m a tinkerer,” Nye adds. “I tink.” He remembers playing with cardboard boxes as a kid. “There’s nothing better,” he says. “The refrigerator would come in a huge box. I mean, oh my God, come on, that’s living. You could crawl inside and it became a tank. And all the forts you could build! Monsters cannot penetrate cardboard. It’s very well documented.”
Let Kids Play
To help kids learn and gain confidence, sometimes mums and dads need to get out of the way.
You can provide them with materials to experiment with — perhaps a pair of socks for them to test their nerves or a penny, eye-dropper, glass of water and some dish soap to explore cohesive force. And then see where they go from there. “Kids love science,” Nye says. “The people who have trouble with science are the parents. Let kids be fearless. Let them mess around. Let them find out how the world works for themselves.”