To the stars through Doctor Who

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Guest blog by Lindsay Henderson, a senior medical student and M.D. candidate from All Saints University, Dominica, specializing in neurology. Having been inspired into the sciences by her geology professor grandfather Bob, she now spends her free time introducing and encouraging young children and students to explore the hard science fields.

“Through crimson stars and silent stars and tumbling nebulas like oceans set on fire; through empires of glass and civilizations of pure thought, and a whole, terrible, wonderful universe of impossibilities. You see these eyes? They’re old eyes. And one thing I can tell you, Alex — monsters are real.” — Eleventh Doctor, Doctor Who

A horror story worthy of fictional monsters is the current American trend of the lack of young people interested in science. Public education has decreased the average science classroom teaching time in elementary schools to an average of 2.3 hours per week, and many high school seniors previously interested in science are electing to pursue other career options, such as physical education and business, by graduation. Once ranked number one in the world for science, math, and engineering, the United States has now fallen to the rank of 35th out of 64 in math and 27th in science.

It is no secret that American children are less interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) as career choices, but how to capture their attention and keep it remains a mystery worthy of solving. David J. Eicher, editor of Astronomy magazine, theorizes that virtual reality is replacing science in the hearts of students and is drawing them away from STEM. High-definition special effects, video games, and computer technology have replaced the science classroom as the place of spectacular never-before-seen experiments and imagination.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the rock stars of popular culture, and everyone wanted to be an astronaut or NASA engineer. The science classroom gave everyone the chance to be a scientist and lay hands on the unknown. The problem today is that science classrooms are stuck in the 1960s, and students don’t want a chemistry lab — they want a Harry Potter-esque potions class. Without leaving their computers and without required critical thinking, young people can experience a virtual world that far surpasses a classroom.

Rowan McGrath, 9, builds 'atomic fruit' for a school project. Rowan wants to be an astronaut when she grows up, and her mother, Lissa, helps focus on a lot of science-based projects to foster and encourage her love of science. // courtesy Lissa McGrath
Stimulating children to become scientists is not the sole responsibility of educators. Many children who end up pursuing STEM careers are engaged in science in preschool and elementary years. Neighbors, scout leaders, physicians, backyard astronomers, math geeks, and, of course, parents all play a huge role in introducing and maintaining a science interest for children. Using science as a vehicle for communication with children is a subtle and powerful way to stay connected to them while allowing them to grow and think on their own.

I remember the first time I ever saw the Moon through a telescope at the behest of my geology professor grandfather. The biting Colorado late-night air, the impatience of hopping around, yet trying to remain still as he ever so (forever) patiently focused on a wavering Moon that looked suspiciously like a giant marshmallow with spider webs on it. I was captivated somewhere around age 8. That same Moon captured in a photograph showcasing its magnificent detail now hangs in my living room, and every time I look at it, I remember the night I first saw the Moon up close. Did that night influence my career in science? I have no doubt it did because the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I followed the Moon, and it led me to my dreams.

But how can we, as adults, introduce children to the scientific wonders around us when we have such competition from the virtual-reality department? Let’s combine them. Science is fantasy with an explanation. Currently there is a massive trend of conventions and a movement of “it’s OK to be a geek.” Nerds are suddenly cool thanks to shows like The Big Bang Theory and fictional characters like Harry Potter. At the Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles, Rowan McGrath explained to me that seeing Doctor Who on TV made her want to be an astronaut. Her mother, Lissa, discovered that bonding over Doctor Who gave her a way to communicate with her daughter that allowed creativity as well as continued exposure and stimulation to sciences.

Kids who don’t feel like they fit in often gravitate to fantasy worlds such as Doctor Who where they feel accepted (“In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important.” — Ninth Doctor) and Comic-Con conventions where they can put on a costume and become someone else. Allowing them that creative outlet while using it as a tool to show them a science world may have multiple benefits including improving their social skills, confidence, and self-esteem and providing them a place to fit in.

Several science teachers who spoke at the Gallifrey One convention discussed how their after-school science programs drew a much bigger crowd of students when word got out that Doctor Who was discussed. Ask your local science teachers or library about a similar club combining science and fantasy.

Whovians of Wichita spends the evening at Barnes & Noble celebrating a Doctor Who pop culture event. Sean Beorn, president, says the kids are often very enthusiastic and ask questions ranging from how big is the universe and is time travel really possible to whether Cybermen are really possible. // courtesy Whovians of Wichita
Sean Beorn, president of Whovians of Wichita (Kansas), says that many of the children who talk with him ask questions that are scientifically accurate concepts learned directly from Doctor Who and other science-fiction shows. He notes that before the age of 8, there seems to be a 50-50 split among boys and girls who are interested in the science aspect of fantasy television, but as children grow into their teens, more and more girls are no longer interested. One of the Whovians of Wichita’s goals as a group is to liaison with local schools and provide fun science peppered with fantasy, and they are working to reach out to more young women.

If your child loves Doctor Who, watch the episodes with them, but introduce them to a telescope and NASA websites. Instead of weekends at the mall, take them to space exhibits and planetariums. Find an astronomy club and sign up. Find physics experiments online and teach them about time travel math and concepts.

Harry Potter fan? Get a chemistry set and make a little “home magic”; the possibilities for creativity and fun are endless. Superhero fans at home? Show your kids the superheroes of science with costumes or experiments. Time travel, magic, and fairytale worlds are excellent venues for stimulating a child’s interest. Taking that one more level and showing children the science behind the idea or the math that could someday make those adventures possible brings reality to the virtual.

Lissa McGrath and her daughter Rowan spend a weekend at Gallifrey One, a Doctor Who Convention in Los Angeles, California, where they spend time together in a sci-fi world. // courtesy Lissa McGrath
Know a kid that you can’t get to set foot in the great outdoors? Video games such as No Man’s Sky (a fantasy universe) and Universe Sandbox (a physics-based solar system game) allows one to set up creation parameters using physics and math. You can set orbits, collide stars, create stars, or explore uncharted galaxies and discover new life. A virtual reality that requires critical thinking and allows for fun and creativity is a great stepping-stone to considering the universe around us.

Use community members such as educated neighbors (what teenager doesn’t need a comfortable relationship with someone not a parent?), family, or professionals. When children come into the medical office for checkups, their number one concern is if they will be stuck with a needle or not. Ask your physician’s office for an extended appointment and request your child’s doctor teach them about their bodies. Children who realize they will get to see their blood and cells under a microscope and hear a heartbeat through a stethoscope are suddenly less afraid and more intrigued, and that experience may stimulate a lasting love of medicine. Join a local geology club through a college, discover better cooking through chemistry, or just go camping and take time to look at the stars. Ask the kids around you to introduce you to their fantasy world of choice, and share with them the science world around you.

The benefits of a child who chooses a STEM life are many. Often children who have their imaginations stimulated by science may fit in better with the STEM peer group. The career options are wide and in demand, and salaries are often higher. People who choose medical careers ranging from associates to doctoral degrees earn on average 20 percent more annually than those with similar degrees not in healthcare. Parents or adults who spend time with children, engaging them in science and fantasy, have a range of ideas to discuss and foster a healthier relationship, allowing for a full range of experiences together. Children who are aware of science often become more environmentally and culturally aware and understand their global impact.

Spending time discovering science and science fiction and fantasy with the children around you may end up making your own world a little bit more magical. And perhaps you’ll have something to share with your own parents as well. Aging doesn’t mean you want to stop learning and growing, and sometimes it’s hard to find common interests to talk about with someone retired in a nursing home. Introduce your parents to Doctor Who or Firefly. Show them Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s work, or that of Bill Nye or Stephen Hawking. Show them the stars again because who doesn’t, at any age, want to lie under the stars and experience a little bit of awe and magic?

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