Hey Siri,"How Do I Foster a Science-Minded Household?"

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Virginia, 93, Julia, 65, Brenda, 41, Dayleen, 9, and Charlize Tovar, 12, are four generations of the Tovar family. They all came to have fun and learn at the Exploratorium on Thursday August 1, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

An unusual glow lights Charlize and Dayleen Sánchez’s faces. They  brighten from cyan blue to red to green, and back again. Big sister Charlize, 12,  and Dayleen, 9, are turning knobs to brighten or dim the lights,  trying to create the color brown.

They're mixing primary colors inside a light cube at San Francisco’s bayside science museum, the Exploratorium. As they experiment, they come up with a new shade – a brilliant magenta. Their mother, Brenda Tovar, gives her daughters’ luminous creation a smile of approval.

“It’s refreshing to get them to be excited about learning,” Tovar says.

The girls’ grandmother Julia Jimenez, stands next to her mother, Virginia Sayes, explaining in Spanish what the girls are doing. Sayes sits in her wheelchair looking cozy and happy, like Mama Coco from the Disney film.

The spirit of inquiry illuminates four generations of this family.


A Science-Minded Household

Tovar – like other parents I spoke with during a summer weekday at  the Exploratorium – hopes her children will continue to nurture this spirit. Kids are born to wonder. Parents who wish to foster curiosity and exploration in their children can do plenty to encourage their kids to think critically, explain their reasoning, and solve problems.

Visiting museums like the Exploratorium is a step in that direction.

Science in the Toilet?

Nate Miller, 8, can’t believe what he is seeing. With one eye, he looks straight at his hand. With the other eye, he sees his 11-year-old brother, Sam, who sits in front of him. As Nate moves his hand to reveal a cat on the wall, he sees a cat’s face with his brother’s smile. Their mom Catherine Lee watches this experiment in sight perception at the Exploratorium. She explains to Nate that his eyes saw two very different views, so his brain combined the two views to create a single image.

Sam, 11, smiles at his brother, Nate, 8, while he looks through a mirror at him while in the Exploratorium on Thursday August 1, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

At home, Lee looks for opportunities to talk about science with her sons. “Watching the toilet flush- that is science,” Lee says, adding that she'd ask her kids about where the water ends up. “How does it swirl as it goes down the bowl?”

(In theory, the Coriolis Effect would cause water to spin on a clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. In practice, the direction depends on the design of the toilet bowl.)

Lee calls this an example of science in basic things we often ignore. Her son Sam agrees. He plays the violin and seems as drawn to the math of music as to the melody.

“My teacher,” he says, “is doing this math science thing with the violin, with sound waves and scales.” To encourage his interests, Sam's parents hired a music teacher who incorporates science into his lessons.

Paint a Picture of What’s Possible

Ellen Ochoa's journey to nearly 1,000 hours in space began with her realization that she could push beyond limits.

As a child she wanted to be a lawyer or the President of the United States, because those were the only careers she knew about. “I didn’t really know about what careers were really like in [science] subjects, I did not know anybody to talk to," Ochoa says. "I just couldn’t picture it.”

Only after she enrolled at San Diego State did she express interest in a math-related degree. Ochoa spoke with a physics professor who  encouraged her to pursue a degree and a career in that field.

From there, she earned graduate degrees at Stanford, became the first Latina astronaut and eventually ran NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Her example is a reminder that children can’t imagine what they can’t see around them. Parents can arrange for their children to meet or job-shadow local science professionals. Ochoa, who's also a research engineer, continues to encourage young people to study science, technology,  engineering and math. “STEM fields are about solving problems and making new discoveries,” she says.

Julia Jimenez - Charlize and Dayleen Sánchez’s grandmother - was inspired to become a nurse after a group of nurses visited her classroom to talk about their careers. After that talk, she recalls,“I said 'I am going to apply and see if I qualify,' I did and I liked it.”

Engage with your Child’s School Culture

Jimenez' daughter Brenda Tovar doesn't leave her daughters' education to chance. “Being active and participating in their school work, going to their open houses and having them show me their projects, the things that they are learning,” she says, is key to encouraging children to learn more.

Liam Boucher, 5, and Georgie Harvey, 5, play with the fog used in an exhibit that creates a small scale tornado at the Exploratorium in San Francisco on Thursday August 1, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Britany Boucher, another parent at the Exploratorium, says  the question, "How was your day at school?" can shut down a conversation with her 5 year-old son Liam.

“It was hard last year, in kindergarten, because he didn’t talk a lot about what was going on in school. It was really hard to get things out of him,”  Boucher says, as she watches her son play in the museum's tornado exhibit. “But his teacher gave us a piece of paper of what they were doing for the week or for the month that was a good way for me to bring up ideas that he would then talk to me about.”

Be Science Confident

Amanda Sadie and her children visit the museum so often they have a favorite exhibit - Morse Code. The interactive game trains your brain to communicate with a partner using dots and dashes. Sadie loves science, and when her kids ask about something she doesn’t know, she turns it into a learning opportunity.

“We can always ask Siri together or we go to Google together,” she says. “It’s a chance for us to read on the spot, learn in the moment, and then try to piece it together,” she says.

Even better than using artificial intelligence or online searches is allowing children to investigate, hypothesize, and experiment first, says Jessica Parker, Director of Teaching and Learning at the Exploratorium - an institution designed to encourage those activities in a safe, supervised setting.

Boucher’s son Liam calls science "kind of hard, because I am in first grade now." Then he scrambles up a staircase and turns himself into a gravity experiment, grabbing the handrail and hanging upside down.

The Science Minded Adventure

Charlize and Dayleen’s light experiment may or may not spark their interest in science careers.  Beyond the museum, Tovar and other parents look for ways to encourage their kids' curiosity and problem-solving skills through cooking, outdoor hikes, and science fair projects.

Making science so fun, they don't even realize they're learning.