Teaching the Language of Science

“I don’t get it.” This phrase, to students and educators alike, can signal intense frustration, or it can represent the starting gun for an exciting sprint toward new knowledge. Sometimes “I don’t get it” means “I’m not interested”; sometimes, it means “I thought something different”; and sometimes, it simply means, “I can’t conceive of it in the form in which it’s being presented.” In every instance, science centers and the activities that they offer can be instrumental in transforming “I don’t get it” into opportunities for understanding and engagement.

In the modern world, people’s lives are constantly touched by science and all that it yields. And yet, the sheer complexity of new knowledge today approaches levels that few can fully comprehend and, sadly, that far too many have come to doubt, reject, or even fear. Recent surveys indicate that, throughout the world, understanding of science concepts and the scientific process is generally low. Lack of familiarity with emerging technologies or research advances results in broad misconceptions. And yet, these same surveys indicate that citizens around the world value all that science has offered humanity and all that it promises. Moreover, people continue to express enormous confidence and trust in science leaders and the scientific community.

Unfortunately, studies indicate that less than 50 percent of scientists engage in any purposeful efforts to communicate their scientific activities to the public. Science centers can offer unique venues to reverse this trend, providing important platforms for inspired exchange between the general public and scientists. If there is a universal language of science, then science centers are in the business of teaching that language. Surveys indicate that about three in five U.S. adults visited an informal science institution in the year preceding the survey (somewhat fewer in Europe and Asia). Many of these institutions are regularly bringing the public face to face with scientists, whether through a hands-on activity based on a scientist’s work, a tour of a working laboratory housed in a museum facility, a science program held in the city streets, a lecture or demonstration on a museum floor, or a Science Café event in a local coffeehouse.

“Science,” wrote the late astronomer Carl Sagan, “is not a body of knowledge, but a way of thinking.” This is true not just for those who have chosen careers in science, but even more so for generations of individuals who are applying the fruits of science in so many aspects of their lives. As we in the science center community strive to transform “I don’t get it” into understanding, we need the scientists themselves to help us open more minds to all that science can offer and to instill greater confidence in the scientific process itself.