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Ben Heine

Life on Mars and the Imagination of Scientists

Around this time seven years ago I was trying to figure out a topic for my Master’s thesis. It could have been anything at all, so long as it fit under the wide umbrella of science writing. After a few dead ends (sumo wrestling, Amish science) I finally chose to write about the hunt for life on Mars.

My advisor wasn’t keen on the idea, and it was way, way out of my wheelhouse. But I pushed on anyway, for three reasons I can remember. Astrobiology has only been considered a legitimate scientific endeavor since the ’60s. So every study felt fresh and exciting. It’s also inherently multidisciplinary — requiring geologists, climate scientists, astrophysicists, engineers, DNA experts, microbiologists and even philosophers — which meant my story would have lots of different voices. Perhaps most important, all of those voices are focused on one Big Question: Are we alone in the universe?

For the same reasons, astrobiology is perfect for science education, or so argues a new study in the journal Astrobiology. Researchers from the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, surveyed high schoolers before and after completing a one-day museum program in which they pretended to be scientists involved in Mars rover missions. The study found that this simulation corrected some of the students’ misperceptions about science and scientists.

These effects, though, were small. Overall the study was quite depressing, especially on one point: Even after completing the program, around two-thirds of the students said they didn’t think that scientists are creative or use their imaginations.

This is a massive problem. And fixing it will take a lot more than flashy rovers and the promise of aliens.

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cigcardpix on Flickr

Somebody in the humanities might legitimately ask why I think this is a problem. Some kids like science, some like art, big deal?

Liking science isn’t the issue. Consider a 2007 survey of 15-year-olds from some 25 countries. The students rated how much they agreed with a bunch of statements about science (from 1, Disagree, to 4, Agree). In every country surveyed, the average rating of “School science is interesting” was above the neutral score of 2.5. In the new Australian study, too, the teenagers liked science. They were recruited to the study, in fact, because they had signed up for a one-day museum program.

But kids can’t picture themselves doing science for a living. Another statement in that same 2007 survey was, “I would like to become a scientist.” The average rating from developed countries* was around 2 for boys and a dismal 1.5 for girls. Similarly, a 2010 study followed 33 students in California who in 10th grade said they were “very interested” in a science career. By 12th grade, 45 percent had lost interest.

So how come kids who like science don’t want to become scientists? One big reason, according to many studies, is they don’t think it’s a creative job. In-depth interviews with high school and college students (whether from New York, Europe, or New Zealand) have revealed that the students often believe that science and creativity are incompatible. Seriously.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth, of course, and that’s the lesson the Australian researchers were hoping to get across with the Mars programs. The researchers surveyed 230 teenagers who participated in one of two museum programs: Pathways to Space at the Powerhouse Museum, in Sydney, and Mission to Mars at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre, in Melbourne. Both programs seem super-fun. In Pathways, students plan a rover mission and then execute it in a “Mars Yard” that looks strikingly like the real thing (which you can see in this short video). In Mission to Mars, students role-play being astronauts or mission control engineers, and analyze data picked up by a rover in a simulated martian crater.

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NASA's Curiosity rover, self portrait

The students’ responses perfectly illustrate the broader issues in science education that I outlined above. Before the one-day program, only 17 percent of the kids agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Science is boring.” Yet just 15 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I want to become a scientist,” and only about 30 percent agreed or strongly agreed that scientists use their imagination and creativity throughout their investigations. After the day with the rovers, there was a statistically significant increase in the creativity rating, to about 35 percent. But there was no change in the number of kids who wanted to be scientists.

My intention here isn’t to disparage what seems like a wonderful outreach program — if I lived in Australia I’d try to sign up for it myself. It would be crazy to expect a day-long field trip, however awesome, to immediately change a teenager’s career plans or philosophical outlook.

Still, the reason the program is great isn’t because it introduces kids to the exciting, multidisciplinary and provocative field of astrobiology. All fields of science, after all, are similarly wondrous and inspirational.

What we need to focus on instead is why the imagination of scientists doesn’t get through to most of the world’s young minds, even to those who are interested in science.

Are science journalists not describing it? Are science teachers ignoring it? Are scientists themselves too shy or modest or data-centric to spend much time talking about their creative process?

How can we fix this?

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Interestingly, ratings from students in developing countries were much higher, around 3.

Images from Ben Heine, cigcardpix, and NASA Goddard