At around noon on August 21, I was driving west out of Omaha, Neb., through cloud-to-ground lightning with my husband and three children, eyes glued to the GPS and hands clutching our eclipse glasses. We were searching for clear skies and the perfect spot to experience the Great American Eclipse. We had pored over maps of historical cloud cover and the path of totality for months. Missing the big event was not an option. We skidded onto a dirt road and parked in a cornfield with just minutes to spare, assembled our gear, climbed on top of the car and together marveled at the incredible beauty and power of our universe.
For a few weeks, eclipse fever gripped the country, and everyone had a story. An estimated 215 million adults—nearly 90 percent of the country’s adult population—watched it in some form, a number nearly double the people who watched the most recent Super Bowl. Eclipse glasses were by far the most common item teachers requested in the Science Everywhere challenge my foundation hosted with the Simons Foundation in the spring. Suddenly, the American public was fascinated by science, a subject that most people claim unfamiliarity with.
The perennial issue with science is that it’s viewed as a niche subject, something only certain kids study in school and only certain elite adults use in their lives. A Pew study found that just over a third of Americans read science news more than once per week. A Science Everywhere survey of parents earlier this year revealed that only 56 percent believe they use science at least once per day (compared to 93 percent for reading). But the reality is that we all see and use science every day, from using our phones to baking cookies with the kids. Recognizing it when it’s right in front of us is the key to developing a passion for it. With scientists repeating dire warnings to our children and grandchildren about epidemics, climate change and natural resource depletion, there has never been a better time to start.
This is where parents come in. We must raise a generation of science-fluent children who take the everyday steps necessary to eat well, preserve our health and protect our planet. Only through such an intentional, incremental effort can we bring about the type of large-scale societal change we need. Parents don’t need any prior science knowledge or extra time to do this. They just have to look for the science behind things they do and see every day, point it out to their children and make them more curious.
It’s about starting with something kids and parents are familiar with. Take crayons, for example. Families nationwide collectively send tens of thousands of pounds of unwanted crayons into landfills each year, not realizing that all that wax isn’t biodegradable. Kids and parents can ask questions about crayons and other products they use every day, and make an impact by supporting recycling organizations such as the Crayon Initiative. They can even melt down their own stubs inside cupcake tins to make tie-dye recycled crayons and discuss melting points, sterilization of germs and the color wheel.
Junk mail is another easy entry point: Kids are desensitized to seeing five or 10 pieces of mail per day go straight into the trash unread. Help them find out how many trees are being cut down each year just to send mail no one wanted in the first place. Then unsubscribe—or better yet, plant replacement trees yourself. Many parents with packed schedules said reading to their kids before bed is the only time they have for educational interaction. Consider trading a familiar title for a book about animals, plants or the planets.
Change will come when it’s second nature for the next generation to connect everyday events—like cooking, computing and weather forecasting—to major scientific discourse on everything from energy conservation to cryptocurrencies to life-threatening viruses. The ubiquity of this summer’s eclipse made it nearly impossible to avoid; the rest of science can be like that, too. Parents with no scientific background can start this revolution, and it’s our duty to do so. Humanity is depending on it.
Laura Overdeck is founder and president of Bedtime Math and chair of the Overdeck Family Foundation.