To encourage young people to take up a science career, family support has been proven to be valuable, and well-designed popularisation programmes help, too.
Backyard science today, an innovative workforce tomorrow
When adults are asked to recall their most memorable moments of science learning, they often respond with an anecdote recounting an experience outside of school rather than with a story that involves learning in a classroom.
Children today are no different. Even with the introduction of video games and the Internet, children are still thrilled with the opportunity to get messy and take things apart to see what's inside. Often this type of play comes after school lets out.
Considering Abu Dhabi's aspiration to draw more children into science and technology careers, it follows that we should be creating more of these curiosity-invoking science activities - for today's children and tomorrow's labour force.
Developing a workforce where UAE citizens are driving advances in emerging industries like aerospace, green energy and IT will require that significantly more students choose to study science, technology, engineering and maths (the STEMs).
Science popularisation activities, also called informal science education, is the learning that happens in places outside of schools, like science festivals, science museums or backyards. These experiences, which can range from launching model rockets to programming robots, have a profound impact on children and, as new research has found, on their future career choices.
A study conducted by the US National Science Foundation found that a majority of American scientists credit participation in a science festival or fair, a field trip to a planetarium or a visit to a science centre with sparking their early interest in science.
It has even been suggested that the reason Silicon Valley spawned the innovation it has is because the leaders of the region's tech industries spent their childhoods at the world's first science centre - the Exploratorium in San Francisco. In fact, the heads of tech giants Intel, VeriSign and Advent all shared the same first job - they worked as Exploratorium science communicators when they were teenagers.
In recent years, two additional findings have added to our knowledge about science education. First, a child's excitement about science expressed between the ages of six and 11 is the single most reliable predictor of future career selection in STEM. This childhood interest stands as a stronger indicator for future work choice than a child's test scores, grades or even the professions of his or her parents.
And second, the most critical factor for ultimate success in school is family life. Parental support in and out of school is more important in predicting a child's success than ethnicity, socioeconomic status or even the quality of the school attended.
Considering the importance of parents in supporting their children's learning and the age at which children express a natural interest in science, families must be given places where they can engage together in science learning. Furthermore, science teachers must offer science popularisation activities as part of the classroom experience.
Abu Dhabi has taken a step in the right direction with the recent announcement of the Abu Dhabi Science Festival scheduled for November 18-26 of this year. The festival aims to inspire the emirate's youth in science, technology and innovation through a fun, hands-on learning approach in alignment with Abu Dhabi's new school curriculum and education reforms.
Other local opportunities such as the Emirates Foundation's Science Express and Summer STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Aerospace and Math) programmes, as well as the Abu Dhabi Education Council-sponsored UAE National Robotic Challenge, offer children, parents and teachers places to build and sustain interest in science and technology. However, our children need to be offered a greater number of these opportunities for these interests to be sustained.
We must recognise the power that science popularisation programmes offer children entrusted with the responsibility of transforming Abu Dhabi into a true knowledge-based economy. Providing today's children with ample opportunities to wonder, explore and investigate, and to channel their curiosity, will define our collective future, and create a workforce that is prepared to deliver on the promises of the Economic Vision 2030.
Linda Silver is a senior manager of science and technology promotion at the Abu Dhabi Technology Development Committee