by: Janet Coffey, Ph.D.

On August 21st, a total solar eclipse will extend across the width of the United States, covering a swath from the coast of Oregon to the coast of South Carolina. For those in the 70 mile-wide path of totality, within a few moments, day will turn dark with stars and planets visible in the sky, then back to light as the moon passes in front of the sun and casts its shadow onto the earth. The rest of North America will experience a significant partial eclipse. The solar system’s upcoming phenomenon invites all of us to experience the wonder and awe of the natural world, and to rekindle our curiosity in how it works.

Thanks to the creative and hard work of a collaborative grant to the Space Science Institute, millions of Americans will be able to go to their local public library to experience the solar eclipse with free viewing glasses and educational programming to help them understand what causes this spectacular event. While the rarity of the eclipse makes it hard to ignore, everyday phenomena present opportunities equally enticing, though often overlooked. In our Science Learning portfolio work at the foundation, we seek to support curiosity-driven science engagement and learning as a means of encouraging scientific inquiry, and of cultivating curious and critical citizens. 

Curiosity and science

Most of the work in our Science Program focuses on unleashing curiosity at the cutting edge of scientific fields in scientists’ quests for new knowledge. From exploring how very small atomic particles take on emergent properties that can form the basis for new materials, to building instrumentation and tools that allow exploration of long standing questions and open up new ones not yet asked, to exploring mechanisms underlying how communities of microbes communicate, curiosity and imagination are essential to the enterprise of understanding our natural world.

While curiosity is a hallmark of scientific research, it also plays an important role in how we engage with and learn science. As humans, we are inherently curious, born ready and eager to explore the world around us. Time spent with a child is a reminder that the questions that fall from a close observation of the world are incessant and sometimes profound. Children’s curiosity certainly differs in depth and degree from professional scientists making progress on the edge of knowledge, but far less so in kind.  

At any age, puzzlements and curiosities propel our efforts to learn science. Unfortunately, too often, these drivers fall way to facts and information. “Science” becomes a noun, a collection of information, rather than a verb, something that we actively do to make sense of the world. Of course, science is both – it is our search for understanding and the products we discover along the way. Both are important, as is understanding how they relate.

Science learning at the foundation

In our Science Learning portfolio, we seek occasions, approaches and models that help bring science to people in ways that capture the wonder of nature as well as the excitement that comes from asking questions and figuring things out. Public engagement with the solar eclipse is just one example.

Foundation grantees have demonstrated the appeal of everyday phenomena, as well; including when this phenomena is made more accessible through high-quality, low-cost tools that anybody – kids and adults alike – can use to engage in meaningful exploration and discovery.

Foldscope, a low-cost, high-powered paper microscope, has sparked pursuit of countless inquiries: scientists, bee keepers and youth are investigating bee hive colonies; pollen hunters are posting and sharing results; families are exploring the formation and structure of ice crystals; kids in backyards are seeing up close the details of a fly’s wing and learning how much life can be found in that warm puddle of water; and field biologists are carrying microscopes as they explore forests and creek beds. Foldscope now hosts the largest online community exploring the ‘microcosmos’ and will soon be producing at least a million microscopes annually, with a price tag of less than a dollar.

Another grantee, OpenROV, has distributed their open-source, high-functioning under-water remote operated vehicle to formal and informal educators, post docs and research scientists, citizen science groups and curious adults. These underwater robots have been used to help solve the mystery of the decline of the starfish population in the Pacific Northwest; explore point source pollution that led to algal blooms in Oakland’s Lake Merritt; document plastic debris off the coast of Norway; as an engineering and research tool for girls’ science and engineering camps; and to understand grouper and snapper fish spawning in the Mexican Caribbean.

Just as tools open up possibilities in science, they also open possibilities for broader engagement with science. As we are learning from our grantees, their use inspires curiosity and facilitates problem solving and learning.

Our work extends beyond accessibility through tools. Foundation grantees have pushed the bounds on “making” as ripe for science and engineering learning through opportunities to tinker, puzzle, take things apart and re-build. We remain inspired by the response to our public challenge to reimagine the chemistry set for the 21st century. We received hundreds of ideas for creative ways to spark and fuel interests, foster curiosity and creativity, and in doing so, recapture the spirit of the chemistry set of previous generations. Gordon Moore, our co-founder, is not the only scientist of his generation that attributes his passion for science to a chemistry set!  Other grantees are helping us understand how to design learning environments and materials to stimulate curiosity, elicit reasoning and help learners make sense of the world.

All of this work complements our longstanding commitment to the San Francisco Bay Area’s Science & Technology Museums – including the Exploratorium, UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California Academy of Science, and Chabot Space and Science Center. To realize their shared missions to inspire scientific curiosity, problem solving and innovation, these science-rich educational institutions design exhibits and experiences that aim to invite their visitors to ask and pursue questions and to keep them coming back in their quests for understanding. Time in these halls demonstrate that science can be irresistible.

Over time, persistent curiosity and inquiry can provide opportunities for much deeper engagement with science. With that can come confidence that one can figure things out, that phenomena can be understood, that assumptions should be examined and that science is trustworthy. To borrow the words of grantee, Manu Prakash: “We are all born curious. Science translates these curiosities into questions. Questions anyone can ask, questions anyone can answer, and with critical thinking and the right set of tools, distinguish fact from fiction.”  

Janet Coffey, Ph.D. is a program officer for Science Learning at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation 


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Related Grants

date grant program term amount
May 2017 Public Engagement in Astronomy Science 12 months $299,808
Nov 2015 Real Science for 21st Century Learning: Building the Resources to Support Authentic Scientific Inquiry Science 12 months $494,000
Sep 2014 Remote operated underwater vehicles for open scientific exploration Science 9 months $94,000
Jun 2016 Open Underwater Scientific Exploration Science 12 months $409,908
Nov 2016 Evaluation of Use of Low-cost Science and Engineering Tools and Impact on Learning Science 24 months $374,745
Nov 2016 Informing and Educating the Public through Science Friday Innovations Science 24 months $493,419
Jun 2013 21st Century Chemistry Set Competition Science 12 months $490,000
Nov 2016 Solar Eclipse Kit Development and Distribution Science 12 months $490,000
Oct 2013 FoldScope: Print and fold microscope Science 36 months $757,000
Nov 2014 Using Virtual Reality for Public Understanding about Ocean Acidification Science 30 months $912,688
Jul 2015 Prototypes for supporting science learning in informal family settings Science 22 months $400,000
Jun 2015 Technology-Based Assessments of Preparation for Science Learning Science 24 months $1,398,600
Jun 2015 Open Portfolio Project Part II Science 27 months $721,000
Nov 2015 Investigating Factors that Contribute to Engagement and Persistence in Science Learning Science 24 months $491,100
Jul 2015 Designing Assessments of Learner Engagement in Practices of Science Science 18 months $400,000
Sep 2013 Pioneering Next-Generation Assessments of Science Learning Science 24 months $871,000
Jun 2015 Pioneering Next-Generation Assessments of Science Learning II Science 27 months $1,400,000
Oct 2016 Scaling STEM-Maker Networks Science 24 months $788,825
Nov 2015 Articulation and Assessment of Scientifically-Grounded Critical Thinking Science 24 months $700,605

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