That’s what kids used to do for fun?

In stark contrast to the Bieber-obsessed Wii-playing youth of today (and I mean that in the nicest way possible), here is a direct quote from an article written in the 1920’s:

“More and more the students are learning science out of school. . . . now we have kids talking about electron streams and metric wave lengths as they skate along the streets.”

[Stunned silence] For real?! This sounds like a wistful lunchtime daydream of a devoted science educator! But apparently the 20’s were quite a bit different than the 2010’s. Science used to be cool.

I don’t think it was just that kids were more thoughtful or focused. Like today’s youth, kids back then jumped on the bandwagon of what everyone else was doing. They too probably sacrificed homework to indulge in hobbies, forgot to pick up after themselves, and most certainly annoyed the pedestrians and horse-drawn/horseless carriages in the streets with their reckless rollerskating and raucous chatter about electrons.

1920s girl on rollerskates electrons how to get kids interested in science

It just so happened that the focus of their enthusiasm, the trendy thing to do, was… science. Not necessarily because it was science, but because a working knowledge of science allowed them to have a very cool toy.

A radio.

“I fancy it would have taken many years for the new theories of electricity to have been incorporated into the common mind if the radio had not come along to help out the teacher.”

Radios today, of course, are a dime a dozen. You don’t have to build your own radio. And really, what’s a kid going to do with a radio nowadays anyway? Now it’s video game consoles, cell phones, and MP3I always want to superscript the 3 in mp3, like sp3 players. There’s no such thing as a build-your-own iPhone, and even if there were, no kid would build it if it’s accessible ready-made.

If we want science to be better assimilated into our culture, it makes sense to target young people. We often think about this in terms of improving our education system, but I maintain that we also really need to think outside the formal-education box.

We need a modern day radio. This 21st century “radio” should meet the following criteria:

(1) Science principles must be learned to some extent for success.
(2) It can’t be accessed (easily) through alternative means (e.g., purchasing)
(3) It has to allow you to do something astonishing, like the radio would let you hear voices from afar (no longer astonishing).
(4) It has to be relatively safe.

Currently the only popular hobbies I can think of that meet requirements 1 – 3 fail on requirement 4 (dangerous, at least from a legal perspective). One involves horticultureillegal, and the other involves basement chemistryillegal and dangerous. And hopefully youth aren’t doing either one.

Any other ideas? I feel like smartphone apps might be a place to start, but that vague notion is all I’ve got…

P.S. The source of these quotes is the very first article in the very first issue of the Journal of Chemical Education (January 1924). This article has some other quotes that, though not really relevant to the topic of this post, are also delightful:

“New ideas explode like T N T and shatter the confining walls.” (how poetic!)

“No professor can now maintain a monopoly of his own profession. He will often meet with men who know as much as he does about his science and yet have no title in front of their names nor degrees trailing after them.” (um… this doesn’t really ring true today. At least, I’ve never heard some random guy at the bar talk about olefin metathesis like my advisor can talk about olefin metathesis)

“May I remind the chemists in conclusion that we have more difficulty in getting “good” copy in chemistry than in any other science. We can get any number of interesting “stories” about stars and stones, about clouds and complexes, about insects and Indians, but there is a strange dearth of writers on chemistry, although there is, as we realize, no subject that touches human life at more points, none that has a longer or more romantic history, none that is making greater progress at present, or that promises more for the future.” (Still true?!!)

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17 Responses to That’s what kids used to do for fun?

  1. Matt says:

    Love it Sharon!!
    We need some kids to obsess over science in the same way that they obsess over video games. Get them hooked. Get them making things (licit things mind you) in their basements/garages/bedrooms. Rocket Boys is a great novel (non-fiction) about a couple of kids in West Virginia who got really interested in rockets and started making some really sophisticated things.
    Doing science is the best way to get people hooked. It surely is why I’m hooked.
    Also, be careful with your person in a bar statement … you never quite know where you are going to run into Harry Gray ;-)

  2. Thanks Matt : ) I should read that book (is it the same story as October Sky?).

    When I randomly run into Harry Gray at a bar, don’t you worry – I will retract my statement immediately. Of course the quote says “will often meet”, and so far zero times is nowhere near “often”.

  3. Tom says:

    I’ve never commented on this blog before but considering I’m seventeen and this post is regarding teenagers I figured it’s pretty appropriate. There are a few teenagers who are interested in science but I’ll readily admit there isn’t the wide-spread interest there was -apparently- in the 1920s.

    In my school, in Lancashire in the UK, the teachers discourage further-reading round subjects. My Chemistry teacher tells me that I read too far ahead and that my knowledge beyond AS level could mean that my exam results suffer not because my answers would be wrong but because they wouldn’t be on the mark scheme. It really frustrates me that education is more about passing exams then actually learning and demonstrating passion in the subject area.

    Towards the end of this year I’m going to be applying for entry into an MChem course and I’ve bought some textbooks I enjoy reading:

    Organic Chemistry- Clayden- Absolutely love.
    Physical Chemistry- Atkins- I’m finding all the calculus a little tricky
    Inorganic Chemistry- Housecroft

    A topic which really interests me in Organometallics but I’m struggling to find much information about them. Only a few chapters here and there. Any recommendations?

    • Hi Tom, thanks for your thoughtful comment; I’ll address your question + concerns as best as I can.

      (1) Read ahead, regardless of what your teacher says! Good for you! Unfortunately I think a lot of little white lies/generalizations must be told in introductory coursework to make the material manageable, so tests have to take these little white lies into account. Think of the test as just a challenge for your problem-solving abilities- figure out what they want you to say based on what you’ve been told, even if you know slightly better based on your extracurricular reading. Just try to be aware of the little testing tricks, and simplify your answers if you need to. But even if your scores do suffer a bit on tests right now, you’re eventually going to have an advantage when you get to higher level coursework and especially if you go on to graduate work. I’m not a science teacher, so this is just an opinion… maybe some teachers might have something to say?

      (2) I love the Clayden text as well. I think they actually do introduce some organometallic topics fairly well. The only dedicated organometallics text I’ve used is by Crabtree (The Organometallic Chemistry of the Transition Metals), and I would recommend it. I’ve heard the new one by Hartwig (Organotransition Metal Chemistry) is good as well, but that’s a much heftier book.

      (3) You didn’t ask me about this, but I really like Grossman’s The Art of Writing Reasonable Organic Reaction Mechanisms. If you like organic chemistry. It’s pretty small for a textbook, and it’s more the kind of book you can read start to finish, with bits of humor woven in.

      Best of luck to you!

  4. Matt says:

    Since Sharon is the Organometallic guru, I’ll defer to her. I’ve used the Crabtree text before but don’t really have any experience outside of that.
    If you are really interested in some of this stuff you need to start doing! Unfortunately some chemicals are really difficult to come by. Those kids back in the day … they could pretty much find a way to get any sort of chemical they wanted. It’s trickier now, and rightfully so. However, there is some really cool chemistry that you can do with food-based/edible materials.
    There was a paper written recently in a major research journal where the authors made a metal-organic-framework (one of the hot topics these days in materials chemistry) using some fancy food ingredients. A summary of the paper is here.
    If you’re interested, email me (or I’m sure Sharon may be willing to help) and I can get you a copy of the paper. Then you can go exploring a little bit for yourself!

    @Sharon … It is the same as October Sky. I really liked that book. A very uplifting story about the passion that people easily get for science.

  5. Tom says:

    Wow, thanks a lot for your responses Matt and Sharon. I’ll certainly check out those books.

    I know exactly what you mean Matt. I’ve been talking to my chemistry teacher about the organic chemistry we’ll be doing in school and he got all excited about how we’ll be making aspirin from phenol… Next year. I was talking about reducing agents and solvents and all that jazz and apparently we’re not allowed to use LiAlH4 or NaBH4 in sixth-form. Neither do we use diethyl ether because it’s too ‘dangerous’. Having said that I did see someone splash concentrate sulphuric acid in their face… So that’s probably wise.

    I want to get some practical skills but I don’t see many ways to get involved in organic chemistry outside of school. I don’t know much about labs as an undergrad but I imagine it’s less of the acid-base titration every-single-practical.

    I live relatively close to a cluster of chemical companies so I’m hoping to get a summer job/some work experience over there. So hopefully that’ll all turn out nicely.

    I’ve not read much about metal-organic-framework or material chemistry in general however am I correct in thinking that ferrocene (the periodic table of videos by Nottingham university are simple but really good) is an example of a metal-organic-framework? I’d love to read the paper: it sounds really interesting!

  6. Yeah, unfortunately there’s not much real organic chemistry you can do at home safely. NaBH4 is safe enough for a student lab, I would think, if it’s stored and used in small quantities. LAH is notorious for causing fires, but again, if you only have very small amounts around you can’t go too wrong if you’re careful. Solvents like ether just require proper ventilation and training about flash points and peroxides.

    It’s a great idea to see about doing an internship or something at a chemical company. Here in the U.S., I think most universities let undergraduates work in the lab, so I’m sure you’ll be able to do that too. And yeah, real labs, where people are doing real research with real chemicals : )

    I’ll speak on the metal-organic framework (MOF) thing from my very limited (one semester) rotation in a MOF-making lab. Ferrocene is the right idea, but think way, way bigger. MOFs are macromolecular structures, so whereas ferrocene contains just one iron atom, a MOF contains zillions (imprecise, I know) of metal centers, each with organic ligands coordinated. A MOF is a crystal, so you’re going to have repeating subunits of coordination complexes that overall make a very ordered structure with regularly spaced pockets of emptiness (that can do things like store gases). Adam Matzger (Michigan) and Omar Yaghi (UCLA) are big names in the MOF field, if you want to look up their sites.

    Maybe someone can recommend a materials textbook for Tom?

    Tom, I’ll email you the pdf of the article Matt’s talking about.

    Thanks for commenting guys!

  7. Adam L. says:

    Kids these days, right?

    I think the big difference between the 1920′s and now (not that there are a lot… oh wait…) is that at that time society was at the cusp of all sorts of technological and scientific wonders that we now take for granted (vaccines, anyone?). On the scale of technological innovation, they were at the bottom of an exponential curve, whereas kids today are reaching into the vertical section.

    Getting kids interested in science needs innovation in the classroom, as you’ve said, since there are too many rules and regulations dictating its use outside of a controlled environment. Science museums and activities are a good place to start for practical application in a controlled setting, while I’m guessing a little internet research will yield experiments that can be done (relatively) safely in the home. I like the idea of using food as part of the experiment, especially because you get to eat it at the end.

    I also think that, in terms of reading material, a good place to start for general scientific interest is the science blogs (like, say, this one?). The good ones will present material in an easily understandable way (like, say, this one) and will be able to point the reader to reputable sources (like, say, this one did). Seeing a pattern here…

  8. Stephanie says:

    People always look at the past as a golden age that had to be much better than our current age. This quote might reflect a particular group of students. My mother grew up on a farm in the 1920s and I’m sure her one room schoolhouse did not discuss electrons nor did she talk about it while plowing the fields with her siblings.

    • Well the particular article that these quotes are taken from is probably not romanticizing the past too much, since it was written in 1924. But I’m sure that you’re right that it was only some kids/teens that got into the whole radio thing. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Jay Enn says:

    The article reminds me of 1958 at age 11 or 12 years old. During one of my visits to the local library I discovered a book titled The Boy’s Second Book of Electronics. (Don’t know if there was a Girl’s Book of Electronics and it never occurred to me until this moment that the title either excluded girls or made the assumption that no girl would be interested in the subject.) It explained vacuum tubes, capacitors, resistors, coils… and included schematics and plans for building some interesting projects. I checked it out, and was so impressed by the knowledge it imparted that I went to a bookstore and bought my own copy. I took the book to school and showed it to friends, Bill and Craig, who were also very impressed with it. They each bought their own copies. All three of us had general class amateur radio licenses within 3 years and a few years later each of the three of us were involved in electronics in some way or another. One, working for AT&T, another, working with microwave communication systems and the third, working with radar systems.
    To encourage children to get involved in science or technology, all they need is something that communicates to them in language and vocabulary that they can understand about something that is out of their current world of experience, yet attainable, desirable for some reason.
    For myself and the other two boys I mentioned, it happened to be a book whose title invited us to look inside and whose language was understandable and on our level. The book was something we discovered on our own, it was not something we were told to do and it was not something that was being taught in the elementary school we attended… so it seemed more special for those reasons.

  10. A key historical difference between 1924 and now is the United States’ switch to an economic system based largely on disposable goods. Since disposable goods are cheap, it’s easy for kids to get them, hence they don’t need to make them.

    My primary recommendation for enticing kids into (electrical engineering and computer) science is the open-source Arduino. It’s cheap, easy to make and program, and can do all kinds of coolo things in the real (physical) world. (FYI, open source hardware projects typically have a .cc domain because “CC” is the abbreviation for “Creative Commons”, whose licenses are typically used to define the user’s rights.)

    My kids and I also get a real kick out of doing all kinds of science tricks at home. There’s dozens of books with hundreds of experiments to try, many of which you can find on ThinkGeek. Anne Marie Helmenstine’s About Chemistry blog also has lots of nifty things to try. Make Magazine is a constant source of inspiration as well. And don’t forget my kid’s favorite program, Mythbusters.

    I can go on AT LENGTH on this topic — Let me know if you want to hear more. :)

    One more thing…My favorite quote (from Kylie, one of my daughter’s friends, when we were doing chromatography of pigments from leaves): “I can’t go home now! We’re doing science!”

  11. @Bill – That is so cool that you do chromatography with your kids! (And their friends!!) And yeah, Mythbusters is probably the best (only?) mainstream science show at the moment. I remember really liking Bill Nye the Science Guy when I was a kid… I miss that show.

    Your comment brings up several good points, one being that parents have so much influence over their kids’ interests (especially when kids are young – before reaching the rebellious phase). I still remember my dad posing a question at the dinner table once about two trains – one filled with helium and one filled with air – going up a hill. Each burning fuel at the same rate, which would make it to the top fastest? I don’t remember the details (like whether it was compressed helium or what), but that kind of thing probably played a role in making me interested in science.

    Thanks for all the cool links, and I will look into a preview function!

    @ Jay Enn – Thanks for the anecdote – it certainly seems to support the statement that science used to be a lot cooler among youth. (However, I know who you are and I know that you happen to be something of a nerd at heart, so it’s entirely possible that you were the exception to the norm : )

  12. Melissa Page says:

    Hey Sarah!

    I bumped into this blog and I had to say, you are simply awesome. Looking on your perspective, it is nice to have kids of the new era to love science as it is the basic subject that revolves around us. Wii is science and so is Bieber (hmmm…). I should share your thoughts.

    Nice blog and nice post!
    Melissa Page
    Check us out at WhiteSpaceInternational!

  13. Jeff Geidt says:

    Wouldn’t that be nice that kids are becoming more involved in Science even if that is outside of school? If they are to be the hope of the next generation, might as well that they become hooked on something that can be meaningful and Science is one meaningful learning.

  14. Kids of today are just more inclined into technology and technology is more of science. Kids do adapt really fast nowadays. Of course we all have to keep up with our fast paced environment or be trapped in the past.