Think science isn’t for you? Think again

Science is a weird thing. There seems to be this general assumption that science is something you’re naturally good at, and if you don’t have that gift, well, then science just isn’t for you.

That, my friends, is bullshit.

Science is for everyone. It’s for the artist who’s using negative space to create an emotional response in the viewer. It’s for the businesswoman who’s weighing the pros and cons of her business strategy. It’s for three-year-olds; it’s for your grandma. Everyone can understand science. Everyone. The key is how it’s communicated.

Scientists know lots of things, but there’s one thing we kinda suck at: explaining what we do to non-scientists. We blame the media for writing inaccurate science news stories without stopping to consider that the information in those stories comes from scientists. We bemoan the fact that eyes glaze over when we start talking, without taking a moment to realize that we’re not actually speaking English. We’re speaking in jargon, and frankly, no one likes listening to jargon they don’t know. It’s like we forget that everything we know about science is stuff we learned over time, and then we look at people like they’re idiots, because they don’t know what we mean. Is it any surprise that people don’t want to listen to that?

It’s not like no one wants to know how things work. There is a huge interest in science outside of the academic setting. We have science pubs, OMSI After Dark and countless YouTube channels devoted to teaching science to everyone. Sites like Khan Academy and Coursera give people the ability to take classes in everything from high school algebra to graduate-level quantum physics. There’s even the Portland Underground Graduate School, where people who are passionate and knowledgeable about a topic teach others in four-week courses.

If people are going out of their way to learn science outside the classroom, then perhaps the problem is inside the classroom. The fact is, we teach science in a terribly boring way. You come in, you sit down, you take notes, you answer some questions with an exorbitantly priced clicker and off you go. Doing science is collaborative, but for some reason, learning it isn’t. But it should be.

If you want to get people to learn science, you have to get them excited about it. If you want to get people excited about science, you have to show excitement. To all the science professors and instructors reading this: Why did you go into science? What is it about it that interests you? Do you remember that spark that you felt when you fell in love with your discipline? Share that with your students. Show them how excited you are about the topic you’re teaching. The best teachers I’ve ever had are the ones who are passionate about what they teach and are not afraid to show it. They might look a little silly when they contort their body to illustrate how a protein folds and shifts as molecules attach to it, but students sit up and pay attention.

To all the science students reading this: Talk about what you’re learning with people who aren’t studying science. Don’t just talk at them—explain it. Get in the habit of rephrasing jargon into everyday language. Teach people what you’re learning, and tell them why you think it’s cool. There’s a pretty good chance that they’ll think it’s cool, too.

To everyone else: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that science isn’t for you. It’s not an ivory tower. It’s not a holy grail. There’s no secret something that you have to have in order to do science. All you need is curiosity.