Last summer I had the privilege of going to Scifoo where I met interesting folks and heard about interesting science. But my story here in this piece concerns two sessions that, coincidentally, occurred back to back in the same room. The second session concerned education, and set itself to address the question, "How can we better motivate youth to enter the sciences and engineering?" As I listened to the viewpoint of an influential policy maker, I became more convinced than ever that policy makers don't know how to inspire scientists. And it struck me that the preceding session in that very same room, wherein a presenter showed us his mind-searing video taking the viewer on a flight through a brain replete with hundreds of thousands of real-data-generated neurons, implicitly had the answer. And so did Carl Sagan.
The trouble begins with a central term used among those who think about science and technology education. That word is "STEM," and it is an acronym for "science, technology, engineering and mathematics." As an outsider to such policy conversations, I had only heard the term in passing, and I am not sure I had known exactly what it stood for. But once I understood what it referred to, I realized it was the wrong sort of categorization, inspiration-wise.
Sure, there is a core set of math-sci-ish skills that each of those in STEM must acquire, but there are radical differences. Engineers and scientists tend to be different sorts of folks. They require very different sorts of training. And they lead fundamentally different sorts of lives.
Before I point out the differences, say why they matter, and put forward what I think is the best way to inspire youth to go into science, let's see the motivation that's on offer for STEM now.
The Scifoo STEM session speaker showed us two winning videos in a contest for inspiring young people to aim for STEM careers.
The first video communicated that STEM careers are...useful. "You'll get a job by going down the STEM route," was the message. A good job. A good career. A fine life.
The second video contrasted greatly from the first. Instead of STEM as a tool, it tried to sell STEM as...cool. "Geek is the 21st century cool," was the theme. And, to be clear, it wasn't merely saying that the topics you get to work on are cool—as in "neat." No, the point was that STEM people themselves are cool, in the black-leather-and-motorcycle, people-will-dig-you, sense. This second pitch intrigued me, for much of what actually motivates us—as opposed to the after-the-fact justifications we spin to ourselves—is in this "cool," social-status, too-sexy-for-my-shirt realm. The "cool" video happened to fail at its task, repeating "STEM is cool" so many times that it made me want to go steal lunch money from the nearest math-sci person I could find. But I can certainly envision videos that would convey how STEM really is, nowadays, cool.
Useful and cool. Is this sufficient motivation for the next generation of science and engineering students?
Yes and no. This is where it matters to pick apart the insides of what STEM lumps together. Whereas "useful and cool" may suffice for those aiming for careers in engineering or technology, it falls woefully short for careers in science and mathematics.
Choosing to be an engineer typically means doing a four-year degree, and then going out to work. The average engineer can start his or her adult, money-making, career at around 22 to 25 years old, and begin moving up the ladder or branching out as an entrepreneur on his or her own.
'Useful and cool' works for such a life plan. It suffices to push one through four years of difficult schooling with a clear light at the end. And the "useful and cool" refrain happens to be approximately true for the typical engineering career.
The situation is utterly different for careers in science and mathematics, however. Most who enter science and mathematics are not aiming to get a job right away in industry—if going straight to industry was the aim, they'd be better off to have employed their math-sci talents for an engineering degree. Instead, those who aim for a career in science and mathematics are aiming to make discoveries, as a researcher or professor. And that requires considerably more than the four-year undergraduate degree. The Ph.D. will take 4 to 6 years. After that is the embarrassingly low-salaried postdoc, which can very easily take between 4 and 10 years. And then there is the fact that there is no guarantee that all this training will get one a coveted tenure-track job. Even when things go as planned, the successful academic scientist doesn't start getting an adult, money-making, salary until his or her late 30s, potentially 15 years after his or her engineering buddies began working at often higher (inflation-adjusted) salaries.
And, needless to say, in fifteen years the engineering friends are far beyond their entry positions. They may be CTOs or even presidents of their own companies by the time the scientist gets a first real paycheck. "Useful and cool" can feel hollow at that point in one's life. "What use is this science Ph.D.? I have no guarantee of a tenure-track job, and any I'm likely to get will pay very little, hardly justifying living like a monk for my most vibrant years. And I have even worse options in industry!"
Now, I don't want to exaggerate too much. Living on the cheap for a decade and a half longer than one's peers is hardly like sitting cross-legged in dirt twelve hours a day or whatever real self-flagellating monks do, but the contrast between what one could have done with one's life can be a heavy weight to bear.
There are times in a growing scientist's life that one can't help but feel a little useless, and a little like a chump. Chumps are not cool.
"Useful and cool" is not sufficient motivation for a life of science (or any academic field). And not just because it's a false promise.
The scientist needs a more potent inspiration.
The best medicine for propelling a young soul into a successful middle-aged academic is this: a romantic, nearly religious, zeal for comprehending the universe.
In my case, for example, for as long as I can remember, my goal in life has been to "answer the questions to the universe" (although my opinion about what the questions to the universe are has varied from nine years old to the present). Useful and cool had nothing to do with it.
Useful and cool also has nothing to do with why people take to religion. They take to it because it fills a certain spiritualicious spot in their brain. For me, that spot got filled with cosmology, Gödel's Theorem, consciousness, evolution, and so on.
Just as religion can be very effective at helping people bear through difficult times, religious-like inspiration can be key to getting a scientist to withstand the years of asceticism on the way to great discoveries.
The question, then, is, How can we give this sort of spiritualicious scientific feeling to young people? And, more specifically, what video would I recommend for inspiring youth into science?
This is where the Scifoo session just prior to the one on STEM enters the story, the session with the "mind-searing" brain video I mentioned at the start of the piece. In possession of more neuroanatomical data than ever before, a brilliant neuroscientist had created a movie taking us on a journal through a real brain. But what made it work as science inspiration for youth was that, in addition to the gorgeous visuals, he had gotten all hokey and had his lovely musically talented daughter compose a soothing, mystical piece for it. In its totality, the experience went from a clinical presentation of science data to, well, the sort of experience that can rock kids' souls and redirect them permanently toward a life of discovery.
In fact, the journey through the endless neurons sprinkled through space with sappy music in the background is reminiscent of a key ingredient to perhaps the most successful science inspirer of my generation, Carl Sagan.
In his series, Cosmos, Sagan flowed through seas of stars in his intergalactic-capable crystal spaceship, all the while accompanied by the awesomely sappy music of Vangelis Papathanassiou. The experience, I can tell you, tinged young minds with excitement and purpose. Cosmos inspired because of the life-the-universe-and-everything it tapped into. Sagan motivated a young generation of scientists because science and discovery in his eyes was a devout calling.
But Cosmos didn't teach us anything useful. And Carl Sagan most definitely wasn't cool. (Not in the sense any actual kid then would have used the term.)
Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (2009) and his new book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (2011). This piece appeared first at Discover's Crux.