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Debbie Glasser, Special to The Miami Herald

When I was a teenager, my career aspirations ranged from gourmet chef to Hollywood actress. But my early dreams of caramelizing onions with Julia Child and sharing the big screen with John Travolta were dashed somewhere between senior prom and the birth of my first child.

But, according to researchers at the University of Virginia, if an eighth-grader expresses the desire to become a scientist, there's a strong likelihood that this professional goal will one day be realized.

"Kids who were introduced to sciences early, and developed an interest early, are much more likely to pursue science-related careers,'' said Robert Tai, lead author of the study and assistant professor of science education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Early exposure matters,'' he said.

Because the United States is experiencing a decline in the number of college graduates in physical sciences and engineering, this is important information.

"We're living in a world where science - and decisions about science - involve us as citizens,'' Tai said.

Is nuclear power still something we need to worry about? Is Teflon safe for cooking? What is stem-cell research? "Our world is more scientifically and technologically based than ever before,'' Tai said. "And we have to ask really good questions when things get confusing. It's our responsibility to our children and ourselves.''

One of the most important ways to meet the challenges of a more complex world, Tai said, is to nurture our children's curiosity and interest in science. However, there's a concern that our school system's current emphasis on standardized tests, especially during the elementary and middle school years, may diminish children's exposure to science and dampen their enthusiasm.

"We're plowing kids through textbooks and hoping they'll pass,'' Tai said. "We have a system that doesn't tell us how to teach our kids, only whether or not they have failed. I'm not saying we shouldn't test kids or that we shouldn't give standardized tests. But we need to rethink them.''

Tai worries about the pitfalls of teaching to the test, rather than encouraging a genuine interest and passion about various subjects. He hopes parents will get informed about these issues and ask their lawmakers and other decision makers to support early science education.

While educational reform may be a long-term goal, there are things parents can do today to support children's curiosity and exposure to science:

* Don't worry about being right. "Young children are naturally curious,'' Tai said. "They ask parents questions about the world all the time.'' But how we answer them, according to Tai, can make the difference between cutting off a conversation and opening an exciting dialogue. "Look for opportunities to say things like: 'That's a great question. What do you think?' Or: 'I'm not sure why the water makes bubbles when it's hot. Let's look it up together.' ''

* Make it relevant. "Help your children see science in the real world,'' Tai said. Cook together. Grow a garden. Take care of your aquarium together. "Science is everywhere,'' he said.

* Wonder out loud. "When you turn on a light or talk to someone on your cellular phone, take the time to wonder in front of your children about how these items work,'' Tai said. A simple comment like, "I wonder why . . .?'' can be a great conversation-starter.

* Take an interest. "Ask your children to share their textbooks with you,'' Tai said. "Ask questions and encourage them to ask questions, too.'' But don't push or pressure them, he said. "The key is to make the learning process meaningful and fun.''

Tai encourages parents to support their children's inquisitiveness. ``We need to ask, we need to know, and we need to be curious about the world,'' he said. ``Unless we develop this curiosity early in our children's lives, it won't happen.''

For more information, visit www.nsf.gov, www.sciencebuddies.org, www.sciencenewsforkids.org, www.science.gov.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsFor Parents.org, an online newsletter for parents. She can be reached at debbie@NewsForParents.org.

Published: July 2, 2006
Copyright (c) 2006 The Miami Herald

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