Ainissa Ramirez says she’s a “Science Evangelist,” and she travels the country to preach her gospel in classrooms.
As a result, the former Yale professor hopes to invigorate students, amping up their engagement with everything from nanotech to material science. I talked to her about how you help a generation of kids find their inner scientist.
[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit innovationhub.org.]
Kara Miller: You’re tackling a problem that we come back to again and again: how do you get more people interested in science and create classes and labs that look more like America? So from your perspective, how do you diagnose the current problem?
Ainissa Ramirez: We have a lot of people who want to take STEM classes, but they pretty much get obliterated with weed-out classes—introduction to science classes, introduction to math classes. We have a long legacy of teaching these classes in hopes of weeding out the students who aren’t too sure of themselves. That’s the way it was set up, because there weren’t many opportunities. But that’s not the case anymore. So we have to update this tradition to where we are as a nation. We need to change the way we teach those courses.
KM: Does that mean making science classes a ton more fun? Does it mean taking some of the more complicated math out of science classes? What does that new science class look like?
AR: I think that it should be more fun, and it should be relevant. I like to show the kids all the cool things that happen with nanotechnology. I tell them that if I were to get one of my hairs and whittle it 100,000 times, one of those slivers would be a nanometer. And then I explain that gold is yellow, but if I was to collect 80 gold atoms and put them together, it’s not gold anymore. It turns out to be red. And all the kids are amazed. Now that I’ve hooked their attention, I can talk about why we have these strange effects, and where these things are going to be used. I’ll tell them that one of the places that they’ll be used is to help cure cancer, and that usually gets their attention.
KM: What are you personally doing to get more people into STEM classes, so it’s not just the elite, geeky few?
AR: I spend a lot of time going to different schools and talking to students about science. And I show them new technology like nanotechnology. But I don’t hit them really hard with math because that’s not going to attract them.
KM: What is your end goal?
AR: My end goal is to be out of a job. I want to be in a world where people are not afraid to ask why about how things are made. I want people to get back in touch with their inner scientist and be curious. It’s a lofty goal, but we were there when we were young. I want us to go back to being inquisitive again.
Tricia Breton contributed to this write-up.