The UNC Science Expo – Reuniting our left and right brains

I’ve visited Morehead Planetarium since I was a UNC graduate student in 1993. I’ve enjoyed its unique, science-themed programs and gift shop, imagining my own books among their small but always intriguing children’s selection.

Last year I emailed Morehead’s education and planning director, Denise Lee Young, about my recently published children’s book, “Eddie the Electron,” and my related school workshops. I was delighted when she responded; and, upon meeting her, instantly felt our shared passion for making science accessible to young people of all backgrounds, which means keeping science fun.

Thanks to Denise, last April I hosted an electronics table at the UNC Science Expo, a science-based street festival that is part of the NC Science Festival (spearheaded by Morehead Planetarium in 2010). The experience fed both my creative and scientific souls – my right and left brains, so to speak – bringing me one step closer to recombining the two.

Ten minutes before start time, two children arrived at my table, and it only got busier after that. We played with electronic snap circuits and talked about electrons and electricity for five hours. Some kids frantically tried to build something structural, paying little attention as I babbled about how we enable the electrons crammed into the negative side of the battery to get to the emptier positive side and, in so doing, illuminate a light or do other work.

One mother said to me apologetically, “He’s 3.”

I responded, “Oh, he can just play. I’m gonna keep talking though, because you never know what young brains are absorbing in the periphery.”

My few adult conversations concerned how to keep kids, especially girls, interested in science. All agreed we need to start them young – expose them to hands-on scientific discovery regardless of whether we think they’ll understand it.

Beyond second grade, most kids become less interested and more intimidated by science. It doesn’t help that American early education currently emphasizes math and literacy at the expense of science – a real shame, given the real-world connections between the three. Thus, despite the science-based opportunities in our ever-challenging job market, U.S. students have fallen behind their international peers in science.

Consequently, education reform is now trending toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Better yet, STEM is shifting towards STEAM (add ARTS), as educators appreciate how the arts foster the innovation that’s imperative to scientific and technological discovery. After years of separating arts and science educations, we may finally integrate them into the holistic education our society and our souls need.

As I tell kids, we are all born scientists. Our experiential knowledge is a blank slate, and we delight in the experiments and rational conclusions we conduct in order to live in this world. But we tend to lose this delight as we age, which is sad on so many levels.

The UNC Science Expo has reinforced my belief that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Be a part of the revolution by taking your family to the (free) expo on Cameron Avenue in Chapel Hill on April 22 (more info at http://bit.ly/1SgM3Fu).

Melissa Rooney received her Ph.D. in chemistry from UNC in 1998 and lives in Durham. Her children’s book, “Eddie the Electron,” is available at The Regulator Bookshop and Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. For more information, see www.melissarooneywriting.com.