Science Evangelist Ainissa Ramirez Speaks on Transforming STEM Education

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Publication date: 
7 August 2015
Number: 
106

On July 28, Ainissa Ramirez - author, self-described science evangelist, and former Yale University Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science – delivered the 2015 Andrew Gemant public lecture at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) annual meeting, focusing on the importance of teaching in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and the idea of “encouraging the Einstein and Edison in everyone.”

Ainissa Ramirez and Catherine O'RiordanOn July 28, Ainissa Ramirez - author, self-described science evangelist, and former Yale University Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science – delivered the 2015 Andrew Gemant public lecture at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) annual meeting, focusing on the importance of teaching in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and the idea of “encouraging the Einstein and Edison in everyone.”  The American Institute of Physics selected Ramirez for the 29th Andrew Gemant Award for “bringing the excitement of physics and its cultural aspects to the public through her lectures, books, radio and TV appearances, use of new media, and outreach events.”  AAPT is an AIP member society.

Ramirez’ lecture, titled “Our Sputnik Moment in STEM Education,” called on STEM teachers to ensure our children are “creative problem solvers so they can handle the challenges of the 21st Century and solve the problems of the world.”  The 21st Century, argued Ramirez, will require solutions that are fashioned differently from how the problems were made.  Among these world problems, she added, are addressing pollution, finding alternative sources of energy, mitigating climate change, achieving better health from DNA research, and getting clean water to everyone in the world. 

Ramirez encouraged teachers to focus on the creative and problem-solving spirit of science in an effort to train prepared 21st Century learners.  She explained, “Education must change.  It used to be that we said that knowledge is power, but this is no longer the case because knowledge is now all stored in Google.  The difference is not what you know now but what you do with it.  It’s the imagination that is the power.  What makes us human is the ability to piece together things that haven’t gone together before.” 

We can teach creativity, said Ramirez, by emulating the great scientific thinkers like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. “A scientist’s job is to ask questions,” reminded Ramirez. “Children are born scientists, but somewhere along the way they lose it.  We need to bring it back.”  Ramirez emphasized that STEM education allows us to build the “human soft skills.”  Among these are curiosity, creativity, embracing failure, ability to use analogies and metaphors, problem-solving, and imagination.   In particular, she emphasized the importance of “making friends with failure.”  Explained Ramirez: “Scientists fail all the time. We just rebrand it and call it data. Trial-and-error is a fancy way to say fail a lot.

Ramirez emphasized the importance of shining a light on diversity in STEM by telling her personal story about choosing to enter the sciences.  Ramirez shared, “Without seeing a little African American girl doing sciences on [the television show] 3-2-1 Contact, I wouldn’t be a scientist. Seeing your reflection matters.”  She added that, “Girls used to be the majority in STEM classes before the home economics movement in the mid-20th Century. We need to remind girls of this.

Ramirez reassured that, “When it comes to the scorecard for STEM, we’re not doing as well as other places, but I’m here to offer you hope.” Addressing the teachers in the audience, Ramirez said she was standing before the audience because she had had great teachers who were role models and mentors.  Ramirez invoked the 1957 Soviet Union launch of the Sputnik satellite that mobilized U.S. efforts in the 20th Century to regain international leadership in science, and she called on teachers to “shoot for the moon,” adding “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.  We don’t have a Kennedy, but we have something better which is all of you.” In closing, she called on STEM teachers to “get in touch with the superhero that you are,” take on the task of changing people, and help children find their spark.

In the question and answer session that followed her lecture, Ramirez was asked about how she would improve education policy if she were the Secretary of Education.  In her response, she made two major points.  First, she said “If I were Secretary, I’d say let’s cut out this testing for at least two years,” referring to the standardized tests that have come to consume much of class time in K-12 schools today and which many teachers find burdensome.  Next, Ramirez pointed out that in some countries like Finland being a teacher is a highly respected profession, and that the U.S. should mimic that success.  Said Ramirez: “Let’s look at best practices and make teaching a respected profession and give teachers the space to teach.

The Andrew Gemant Award each year recognizes the accomplishments of a person who has made significant contributions to the cultural, artistic or humanistic dimension of physics.  Andrew Demant was a Hungarian physicist who studied in Austria and fled the Nazis out of Germany to the U.K. and later the U.S., using his newfound freedom to write a large collection of short stories and novels and to draw illustrations.  Previous Gemant Award winners have included Brian Greene, Freeman Dyson, and Stephen Hawking.