Giving Thought: Opening minds to the wonders of science |

Giving Thought: Opening minds to the wonders of science

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Not-so-fun fact: U.S. students currently rank 38th out of 71 countries in math achievement and 24th in science. Additionally, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, only 33 percent of our eighth-graders are rated “proficient” or “advanced” in math, and only 34 percent in science.

This slide in U.S. science supremacy was part of the founding rationale for Aspen Science Center, President David Houggy said. His job fuses his passion for educating kids with his diverse background in science, business strategy and nonprofit management. The aim of ASC is to educate the public — both kids and adults — about science.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please explain the origins of Aspen Science Center.

David Houggy: The Aspen Center for Physics has been around since 1962 and was founded by George Stranahan and others. It’s primarily for physicists, about 1,000 of whom pass through every year, talking about their research and sharing ideas. In 2005, George and others founded Aspen Science Center to, as our mission says, “advance the public understanding of science through lifelong discovery, exploration and education.” So, it’s educating the public about how science works and how it can help us explain many things in the world.

We’re a nonprofit, privately funded mostly through donations and some grants. In addition to getting people excited about science, we also want to advance critical thinking more broadly and get kids involved in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Our country is going to need about a million more people pursuing STEM careers than we’re currently projected to develop over the next decade.

ACF: What are your programs?

DH: For the last 10 years, it’s been mostly events. Our big annual event is our Science Street Fair in August in Paepcke Park. We do weekly physics barbecues at the Center for Physics on Wednesdays all summer. We have burgers and hot dogs and a physicist will give a 20-minute kids’ lecture and do hands-on demonstrations.

For adults, for the last two summers we’ve done the Science of Music with the Aspen Music Festival, which is all about the technical, scientific side of music. When I’m listening to someone playing a Stradivarius, and I understand the physics of what I hear, it enhances my appreciation of the music. We’re looking at creating the Science of Art, the Science of Cooking, the Science of Snow Skiing, weather and beer-making. The idea is to show how science provides a deeper understanding of almost anything. We also have winter Physics Cafes at the Wheeler Opera House in partnership with the Center for Physics.

Our kids events are really geared at giving kids the opportunity to experiment, play and get their hands dirty so they see the fun in science. Looking forward, however, we want to move more into programs, where we see the same participants over time, with a curriculum that’s more deliberate and provides more in-depth learning.

Our first foray into that is our Preschool Education Program. We are working with seven preschools from Aspen to Rifle, a mixture of district-funded and private schools. We’re asking teachers to help us develop the program and use the language of science to help kids build on their natural curiosity.

ACF: We hear a lot nowadays about science being under attack. Do you agree, and does that influence how you perform your job?

DH: First, I don’t like the term “under attack,” because it doesn’t promote constructive dialogue and I think it implies intentions that people don’t necessarily have. I will say that, A) the current presidential administration is making changes to science funding and dissemination of scientific findings that are very troubling for science, and that is the antithesis of open, peer-reviewed discovery. And B), scientists and scientific organizations need to do a better job of promoting science and being clear about what science is and what science isn’t.

People think that science proves things, but the reality is that, when scientists see something anomalous that they can’t explain, they come up with a way to explain it, and then actively try to disprove it. Only by whittling away the ideas that are wrong are we eventually left with what’s right — for now! Einstein showed that Newton wasn’t entirely correct about gravity more than 200 years later.

ACF: What’s up next for the Aspen Science Center?

DH: We’ll continue to develop our programs. In addition to the preschool program, we’re working to establish after-school STEM programming and, specifically, we’re hoping to open a storefront Discovery Center in the midvalley. It would be open every day after school, on weekends and in summer. Kids could come and explore science, work on science projects and really get immersed and excited about science.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.

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