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Expert Voices

Education and Explosions, Alloys and Animation: Q+A With Ainissa Ramirez

Victoria Hutter, assistant director of public affairs at the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), contributed this article as part of partnership between NEA and Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Ainissa Ramirez is a science evangelist, an impassioned champion for science education. She has a Ph.D. in material science from Stanford University, worked at Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies, and spent ten years as an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Yale University. She has authored over 50 technical papers, co-written two books, and holds six patents.

In her book "Save Our Science: How to Inspire a Generation of Scientists," Ramirez said, "The 21st century requires a new kind of learner — not someone who can simply churn out answers by rote, as has been done in the past, but a student who can think expansively and solve problems resourcefully. The traditional academic skills of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic must be replaced with creativity, curiosity, critical thinking and problem solving, and collaborative and communication skills in order to solve the complex problems of tomorrow."

That list of attributes will surely be familiar to anyone interested in the arts and arts education.

In our ongoing series about happenings at the intersection of art, science, and technology, I wanted to know more about Ramirez's work and how she communicates that work to the public.

NEA: How did you become a science education evangelist?

Ainissa Ramirez: I've always wanted to get the general public excited about science. My evangelism started with the development of two YouTube series: Material Marvels and Science Xplained. [Author's note: These short videos feature Ramirez in a lab coat demonstrating a fun fact or telling a story from the world of science.]

My students really liked demonstrations. Explosions, blowtorches — the more lethal the better.

NEA: Yes, I noted in your book "Demoworks,"which includes pages of your demonstrations, you said, ". . . relying solely on lectures is risky for it hinges on the students' imagination and the teacher's ability to transmit information effectively. Illustrations and demonstrations, however, resonate uniquely with each student and, like music, transcend all communication barriers."

AR: Exactly. So, the first thing I wanted to do was to document my demonstrations. After "Demoworks," I started Material Marvels and then switched to Science Xplained because I wanted to broaden the topics beyond material science. Also, I started to change the style slightly and make it more story-based.

But the question remained, "Where do I want to have the most significant impact in my life?" My classes were about 30 students, and I decided I wanted to reach many more people. I needed to do something bigger.

So in 2012 I took the leap, left academia, and officially became a science evangelist. Almost as soon as I did, things opened up. I was asked to give a TED talk. I became an advisor for different science museums. I wrote the "Save Our Science" book with TED and most recently my book co-authored with Allen St. John called "Newton's Football" was published with Random House

NEA: Speaking of "Save our Science," tell me more about what you're getting at in the quote above about the essential capacities for young learners that just happen to be the same as those described by arts advocates.

AR: "Save Our Science" is my call-to-action to say generally that we need to change the way we teach science. I've been through the existing science education pipeline. We can't do it the way I experienced it if we want to move forward.

Unfortunately, I'm in the minority with that perspective from the science point of view. Scientists are so busy with their heads down, they don't even have the opportunity to look up to see that there are other ways to deliver science education. Science evangelism is like the scene from "The Matrix" where you're given the red pill (reality) and the blue pill (bliss of illusion) and one pill will take you back to life as you knew it and with the other pill you're going to see things completely differently.

So I took the red pill that allowed me to imagine science education in a new way. Everywhere I've studied or worked: Stanford, Yale, Bell Labs — the baseline is smart. Everyone is smart. But, the people I know who were the most successful, and I've had some fantastic mentors, were all really creative. They had that little extra innovation bump that allowed them to do fantastic stuff.

Creativity, curiosity, critical thinking and problem solving, and collaborative and communication skills — those are the skills we have to emphasize because at this point in our existence, the information is out there. It's all on Google. So what we need are the human skills more than ever. Imagination and creativity will take what we do now to the next level.

NEA: In a recent TEDxBroadway 2014 event you spoke about the connection between the arts and the sciences. Can you talk more about that? How do the arts influence or inform science and visa-versa?

AR: I'll start by saying that I feel that science has lost its overall vision. In the middle of the last century, we had big goals regarding the space program for instance, that galvanized and energized the science community and the general public. How can we get back to that place now when we are all excited by the world around us?

In addressing the question, it's natural for science to turn to the arts. The arts inspire a wide audience by evoking our imaginations and telling stories. Think about the TV and later movie series, "Star Trek." Our cell phones, tablets, video conferencing were first realized on the Starship Enterprise. Remember "The Fantastic Voyage," when a submarine and crew are shrunken down and injected into a diplomat in order to save him? That's nanotechnology.

Whereas science through its objectivity and rigor distills the human being out of ideas, the arts reconstitute science to include human beings.

I wanted those in attendance at the TED event to know that science needs them. What are the ways that we can work together to make each of our areas of endeavor diverse, excellent, and exciting?

If you're a topical expert — researcher, business leader, author or innovator — and would like to contribute an op-ed piece, email us here.

NEA: What has to happen now for science education, or as we hear so often, STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) education, to change? And what are your thoughts on adding the "A" (for Arts) to make it STEAM?

AR: I use the term STEM because that's what I know. For me, the critical skills such as patience, imagination, creativity, are encompassed within that framework. I'm not saying it's the only route.

As for adding the A, I think it's a knee-jerk reaction to say simply put the A in there because there's a danger that in adding the A you're simply adding a separate piece to the STEM pie. STEM is an unfortunate designation, because what we've done is say there's science, technology, engineering and math, each in their designated silo which is the problem that we're trying to solve. We've put things in silos so that our brains can understand the information but nature doesn't do that. Nature just is.

But in truth, when you add the A, the whole thing explodes and education becomes integrated where there is less difference between this subject and this subject and this subject.

Learning is not about consuming information, but rather, we need to focus on attaining skills, the ability to learn and to teach yourself, the ability to do something with what you've learned. That process is embedded in the arts and embedded in the sciences. We need to imagine a new meta-discipline.

NEA: So, we're not talking necessarily about curriculum development or after-school programs . . .

AR: No, no. That's Old School. But I don't know what the New School is, yet.

The other issue is that we're tethered to testing. In fact, I would say that schools are being strangled by testing. What we need to do is provide opportunities for children so they can see that there's another way to do things. And that could be with project-based learning that requires all parts of the brain. That's what I want for kids, and frankly, that's what gets them excited.

But outside the school day there is so much we can do. The after-school programs, the compelling television programs which show science not in a pedantic and boring way but in an engaging way. To make a world of "makers" is going to force schools to change because they're not going to be relevant to what people are excited about. I liken it to making a diamond where you have a piece of carbon that gets pushed really, really hard and it changes completely. The environment around the school is going to change schools on the inside just like that piece of compressed carbon.

NEA: In your TED-Ed presentation, Magical Metals: How Shape Memory Alloys Work, you use a wonderful animation to give a science lesson about atoms, metals and alloys. Is this the first time you've used animation in your science lessons?

AR: TED-Ed was a great opportunity. At the time that they reached out to me, there wasn't a lot of the hard sciences on that platform, so I wanted to see if there was a way to make material science cool and exciting and share it more broadly. I did the writing and narration and TED Ed found the animator (Andy London) to make it come to life. If you notice some of the parts of the animated atoms are pieces of baloney, knobs from ovens, matchsticks. And the video has resonated with audiences.

NEA: Did you study an art form when you were growing up?

AR: That's a good question — not much. My folks were working-class and it wasn't really an option. That said, we did go to every museum, every zoo in New York (I grew up in New Jersey). So I was definitely exposed to the arts.

My dad played the guitar and tried to teach me, but I was impatient as a child. Fast-forward 30 years, I now know how to play the guitar. Although, it wasn't part of my upbringing directly, I see it as extremely important because when I took on the guitar as an adult, the other side of my brain was starting to flash and it actually helped my research. As humans, we're brilliant in many different ways and everything you do speaks to everything else you do.

NEA: And what are you up to now?

AR: As a science evangelist, I'm going across the country and even across the world speaking to teachers, organizations, and school systems about how to get people excited about science. I'll be speaking at the USA Science festival about Newton's Football. And I'm working on another book, [on] how we humans have been transformed by the things that we create, how our creations change us as well.

NEA: Give me an example.

AR: We created this crazy material called steel. With steel, we were able to build a railroad and when we built the railroad, it compressed time and space because you could travel so much further in less time. Of course, steel is also used in skyscrapers. So we're able to move up and down and that changes our perspective. We aren't limited by the earth's crust anymore. And once we built skyscrapers, where else could we go?

Well, let's go to the moon.

The NEA is committed to encouraging work at the intersection of art, science and technology through its funding programs, research, and online as well as print publications. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.