As graduation approaches, I find myself reflecting more and more about the past and the future. It seems somewhat unbelievable that in less than four months I’ll be graduating with degrees in Genetics and Evolution (with a minor in Psychology!). That surreal feeling is even stronger when I tell people that I’ll soon be striving towards my PhD studying Human Genetics & Evolution at…well, university soon to be decided.

I’ll be the first Dr. McCreight in my family, and the only scientist. That makes me wonder how I ended up this way. How did a daughter of an art teacher and history teacher become such a big science geek? And more importantly, what can I learn from my upbringing to better encourage kids to be interested in science?

Books

The importance of reading is so well known, but I need to mention it. I never was given explicitly pro-science books that are targeted towards kids. In fact, the only real nonfiction science book I enjoyed was the first book I ever read, in preschool, and was about dinosaurs. I’m still baffled how you can have a book with complex dinosaur names that a 3 year old can understand, but I loved that thing.

That’s the one exception, because it was fiction books that really got me pumped about science. They sort of tricked me into thinking like a scientist, rather than ramming it down my throat. For example, I still vividly remember reading a passage from A Wrinkle in Time where a character is explaining the different dimensions, and they accidentally travel through a 2-D world and experience what it would be like to be squished flat:

She tried to gasp, but a paper doll can’t gasp. She thought she was trying to think, but her flattened-out mind was as unable to function as her lungs; her thoughts were squashed along with the rest of her. Her heart tried to beat; it gave a knifelike, sidewise movement, but it could not expand.

But then she seemed to hear a voice, or if not a voice, at least words, words flattened out like printed words on paper, “Oh, no! We can’t stop here! This is a two-dimensional planet and the children can’t manage here!”

I read that book over a decade ago, but that passage still stuck with me – in fact, it’s one of two scenes I remember from the entire book. I understood the concept of dimensions because it was humanized, regardless if we could really do the magical sort of traveling they do in the book. If someone had tried to my ten year old self down and explain dimensions scientifically, I’m not sure if I would have understood it or wanted to pay attention, no matter how passionate the teacher was.

But books don’t just have to teach scientific concepts. In 5th grade we read The Westing Game, a Clue-like murder mystery. It was full of puzzles and red herrings, and trying to solve them was pretty much the most amazing thing ever. We were living the Da Vinci Code (well, it wasn’t written yet, but you know what I mean). Every time we’d read a new chapter as a class, we would collect all of our new clues, add them to a giant bulletin board, and try to figure it out. We weren’t just reading a story – we were actively participating, gathering evidence, working as detectives, forming hypotheses, and using logic to solve the problem. It was teaching us to think like scientists and have fun while doing so.

Sci-fi and murder mysteries are all well in good, but it was naturalistic books that really got me interested in biology. I was a shy, indoors sort of kid; I loved painting, drawing, reading, and playing videogames. My parents aren’t outdoors people, so we never went hiking or camping – the only time we spent with nature involved sitting on a golf cart.

So when I was assigned books like Where the Red Fern Grows and My Side of the Mountain, it was a type of escapism. The idea of interacting with animals and living off the land was as spectacular and amazing as zipping through dimensions and traveling through space. It wasn’t just novel – the books were great, and I started to eat that genre up. I looked for more books by Jean Craighead George, and found Julie of the Wolves. I absolutely loved it, and it was the first time I ever thought about animal behavior and ecosystems. I wanted to gobble up anything about wolves, so my dad bought me The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London.

But again, things don’t necessarily need to be realistic fiction. My sudden curiosity for animals was also filled by Animorphs – and aliens giving people abilities to turn into animals isn’t exactly scientific. But it made me think about what it would be like to be certain animals – how their behaviors differ, how they’re similar, how they’re like us. I even loved the evolution-like covers, long before I had ever learned what evolution was. Aliens giving people abilities to turn into animals isn’t exactly scientific, but it ultimately increased my interest in nature, and that’s what matters.

This isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia – trust me, it makes me feel suddenly old, not a feeling I enjoy. But reading matters when it comes to getting kids interested in science. The books don’t need to be non-fiction or have the goal of teaching science in mind – they just need to inspire. They need to plant that spark of interest that kids can choose to follow if they wish. This is especially important for kids like me who didn’t get any real life experience with nature – sometimes a book is all we have, and sometimes a book is all it takes.

Actually getting a child to read is a totally different problem, one I don’t have a good answer to. I was a little bookworm, so you never had to encourage me. But one thing to notice is that nearly all of these books were assigned to me in school. Left to my own devices, I would probably still be rereading Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to this day, and never have picked up something new. Did I love every book I was assigned in elementary school? God no. I didn’t even get halfway through the Secret Garden (still got a B on the essay – developed my BSing skills early). Not everyone is going to love everything, but inspiring some children down the road to science is worth it.

More parts to How this kid became a scientist will be forthcoming soonish. Hey, scientists are busy people!