A Personal Perspective
by Robert Bruce Thompson
Bob Thompson is our Science Curator at Make: Online and in the Maker Shed. He’s the author of numerous O’Reilly and Make: Books titles, including Building the Perfect PC, Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders, Astronomy Hacks, and Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments. I asked if he would write a little bit about his take on the Make: Science Room and why he thinks it’s important. Here’s his response. – Gareth Branwyn
Like a kid in a candy store. That’s how I felt back in April when I joined the MAKE team as Science Curator, tasked with building out the science content and the Make: Science Room microsite. Our goals were and are ambitious: over the coming weeks, months, and years, to produce and publish a huge, freely downloadable collection of hands-on, how-to home science articles and videos for DIY science enthusiasts and home schoolers, and to support those articles and videos with high-quality home science equipment, chemicals, and science kits at competitive prices, in the Maker Shed.
Here we are six months later, and thanks to a massive effort by the entire MAKE team, the plan has become a reality. The first couple of dozen chemistry and forensics articles are posted in the Make” Science Room, with dozens more in the pipeline that we’ll roll out in batches every week. We’ll eventually expand to cover astronomy, biology, earth science, physics, and other sciences. We’ve shot the first half dozen videos (although my inexperience with video production and editing means those aren’t quite ready to roll). We have more than 150 lab equipment items in stock at Maker Shed–everything from beakers and test tubes to balances and thermometers to microscopes and calorimeters-and about the same number of specialty chemicals. Maker Shed also has some serious science kits in stock-everything from lab glassware and hardware kits to chemical kits, from microscope starter kits and staining kits to specialty kits for lead testing and fingerprinting and bacteriology-with many more to come!
For the past few days, I’ve been sidelined by an attack of vertigo, which has given me some enforced downtime to think about what all this means to me. The Science Room is the culmination of things that have been important to me since I was in junior high school more than 40 years ago. I built my first home lab at age 11, and I’ve been an amateur scientist ever since. For a while, I flirted with becoming a professional scientist, majoring in chemistry in college and grad school. But, as much as I love science, I eventually decided that I didn’t want to devote my life to working with just one aspect of it. Instead, I’ve made science in one form or another my primary hobby ever since.
Ironically, when I took the Kuder Occupational Interest exam in high school, the top three occupations it recommended for me were High School Science Teacher, University Chemistry Professor, and Research Scientist. The focus on science was obvious, but I somehow missed the focus on teaching science. So, forty years later, things have come full circle, and I’m now devoting most of my attention to teaching people, particularly young people, about science. It looks like the Kuder results had me pegged all along.
When someone asks me why I believe so strongly in the importance of teaching science, and in particular why I emphasize home science, my reply is simple: science is important-critically so–and our schools are, with a few exceptions, doing a very poor job of teaching and encouraging it. It’s not that I expect (or even want) everyone to become a professional scientist (although we certainly need more young scientists to replace the legions of scientists my age who are nearing retirement). It’s that universal basic science literacy–a general understanding of science and the scientific method–is as important to society as universal general literacy. In an increasingly technical world, it’s crucially important that we educate our children–the future voters and politicians–and ourselves to have a basic understanding of science and the ability to think critically and evaluate issues based on understanding rather than emotion.
If the schools can’t or won’t teach science, there’s no real alternative but doing it ourselves. Let’s face it, not a lot of kids are going to sit spellbound reading a science book. Some, but not enough. The way to get kids (and adults) interested in science is to encourage them to do real science — hands-on, practical, and fun stuff. Things that let them get their hands dirty, exploring science up-close and personal. And that’s what the Make: Science Room is all about.
I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to help get the Science Room up and running, and I can’t wait to see how it develops and grows. We don’t know exactly how things will develop, because that will in large part be determined by you, our readers. Please visit the Science Room often. Comment on the articles. Tell us what you like and don’t like. Give us your ideas and suggestions. The idea of the Make: Science Room is to build a community, and we can’t do that without you.
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