While growing up in northern New Mexico, I was fascinated by the world around me — or more specifically, the world beneath my feet. I was intrigued by the exotic land forms, the mysterious colors, the textures of rocks, and the stories they told about the Earth’s earliest days. It’s hard to predict what will spark scientific curiosity in a child. For me, it was mineralogy and the origin of the Earth. For others, it might be stargazing and wondering how the universe came into being, how cars work, why animal herds migrate, or how disease spreads. My parents fostered my passion, spending countless hours and walking hundreds of miles on mineral and fossil hunting expeditions. Those adventures ignited my love for the outdoors and geology that culminated in a Ph.D. in geophysics. Today, as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, I consider how we can spark scientific curiosity in young people and how to increase science literacy in this country.
The United States enjoys many of the best science and engineering universities in the world, but increasingly, American students are not pursuing degrees in the STEM fields. International students constitute the majority of full-time students in some physical sciences, and their numbers are rising much faster than our domestic counterparts. For example, in physics, a field of particular interest to Los Alamos, nearly 45 percent of doctoral degrees are awarded to foreign students. These international students are educated in the United States and are valuable not only to their home countries but to the world’s scientific community. International collaboration is important. Last year, nearly 500 foreign national employees and students worked at the Laboratory, but most national security work requires US citizenship and so Los Alamos must look for ways to bring more American students to science, math, and engineering.
Since 1998, the Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund has awarded $6.1 million to nearly 1,400 students from the seven counties that comprise northern New Mexico to pursue education in fields that will serve our region. Among the recipients was Charlyna Gonzales, a first-generation college student from the small village of Peñasco (pop. 1,200), who is studying biomedical engineering and physics at Colby College in Maine. What spurred her curiosity? A knee injury while playing volleyball. “My injury made me want to find out more about [medicine],” she said. “I did a ton of research at the time, asking questions like, why did this happen to me? Why are women more susceptible to knee injuries?”
Not everyone wants a career in science or engineering, but in a world where technology plays such a critical role in our lives, virtually every career will require a basic understanding of math and science. Programs such as Hour of Code teach elementary school students how to do computer coding, partnerships with local school districts to improve teacher education, and outreach to students of all ages through our Bradbury Science Museum are focused on improving science literacy.
Recently, I was asked what is the most important question a child should ask, and my answer was easy: “Why?”
This simple, three-letter word leads to exploration and insight, whether in a child’s expedition or at a national laboratory. At its heart, STEM education encourages children to ask why and helps them find the answers. In doing so, they never stop learning—and we never stop discovering.