One day at the beach, walking along the shore, she asked me, “Jennifer, why is water so interesting?”
In trying to answer her question, my mind first jumped to hydrogen bonds, surface tension, and solutions, but then I realized that even though I am privileged to know about those nerdy things, my fascination with water wasn’t any less than hers. Water is a one-of-a-kind material on this planet, being truly irreplaceable as our sole source of hydration, as the universal solvent, and as part of an incredible landscape. She had no idea how brilliant her question was. I laughed and told her that I didn’t know but I definitely agreed with her.
This is my bright, young sister-in-law I’m referring to, then 4 years old. Coloring one afternoon, maybe that same day, she asked me to draw a beach scene. I think I did a pretty good job, but I’m not sure how it would have fared in a gallery. She did, however, ask me to hang it up in her room. She also asked me to make a sign to go with it saying, “NO LITTER ON THE BEACH -THANKS.” I prompted none of this, but she certainly learned it somewhere. I was impressed and grateful that she and I shared the motivation to protect some nature.
Anyone who has a child in their life knows how rewarding it is to see them understand something the way you do, to see the flicker of light in their eyes. Educators work so hard at this every day, but they are overwhelmingly outnumbered in the classroom. They just can’t reach every student. And it’s often not until we understand something that we are moved to take action. This passing of enlightenment from teachers to students is crucial.
Understanding the bigger picture makes a huge difference even in the small choices we make each day of what to eat or whether to drive or walk. There are, in fact, people of all ages without a science background who want to make informed decisions about health, conservation, and other issues under scientific study. They just need the right information. If we want to preserve the beauty within this world that we scientists observe every day and so deeply appreciate, we have no choice but to get as many people as we can to join us in understanding.
Teaching with this level of insight is not a job that anyone can do. We scientists have been gifted the deepest understanding as a reward for our endeavors, and we can effect serious change when we pass wisdom on to others. Journalists shed light on important issues each day, and scientists can add a unique angle, a pivotal layer of significance, to their noble efforts. Whether it is by writing fictional stories or news articles, by making documentaries, or by spending time in classrooms with equally passionate and observant children, all of us can give to this cause. We also give to ourselves when we make use of these creative outlets.
Now almost 8 years old, my sister still cleans up beach trash using a pink and green, turtle-emblazoned messenger bag I found for her while at a conference. Even as young as 4, she had an incredible capacity to understand and to care, as do most children. She fortunately has a few scientists in her life to give their input and to help her continue to understand. Imagine how the world could change if more children were inspired like her.
(Previously submitted to a Naturejobs journal competition)