Inspiring Young People for Discovery, Science, and Invention

I saw a post on Facebook about some kid doing a science project. It got me thinking about science and young people. All of us enjoy the fruit of science, but are young people today being inspired to do science?

The United States has always led the world in science. Much of it is because we had a welcoming as well as a strict immigration policy. The best and brightest men and women came to America believing they could accomplish great things here, not only in the area of science but in all types of industries.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., where the steel industrialist, philanthropist, and Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie set down roots and changed the landscape and skyline and helped turn the three-rivers town into the Steel City. “He built Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Steel Company, which he sold to J.P. Morgan in 1901 for $480 million (the equivalent of approximately $13.6 billion in 2013), creating the U.S. Steel Corporation.”

I spent many hours walking through the Carnegie Museum, walking distance from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University.

Then there’s the H.J. Heinz Company that began in 1869 in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, and developed into a world-wide brand. It was purchased by Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital for $23 Billion. From foodstuffs to horseradish to “57 Varieties of Products,” the company has become a household name.

Here’s what I recommend for young people.

Begin by reading the book Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam. It was later produced as the film October Sky — “describing Sputnik as it crossed the ‘October sky’” — and an anagram of Rocket Boys. The film was given a different name because “Universal Studios marketing people got involved and they just had to change the title because, according to their research, women over thirty would never see a movie titled Rocket Boys.”Rocketboyshardcover

It’s more than a movie about four high school students who work against the odds to win first place and the gold medal in the National Science Fair in 1960 with their solid-fuel model rocket. It’s a story about transcendence, rising above or beyond perceived limitations.

“[I]t’s the story of a teenage boy who learns about dedication, responsibility, thermodynamics and girls. On the other hand, it’s about a dying way of life in a coal town where the days are determined by the rhythms of the mine and the company that controls everything and everybody. Hickam’s father is Coalwood, WV’s mine superintendent, whose devotion to the mine is matched only by his wife’s loathing for it. When Sputnik inspires ‘Sonny’ with an interest in rockets, she sees it not as a hobby but as a way to escape the mines.”

Homer wants out of Coalwood, West Virginia, and an occupation that will send him and his friends to an early grave. The coal mines are often a young boy’s destiny in these types of towns, sons following fathers down the unlit mine shafts to breathe the fine dust that will one day kill many of them. It happened to Homer’s father.

For Homer’s older brother, football is his ticket of escape.

It’s the time of the space race with the Soviet Union. Sputnik had just been launched. “Inspired by Werner von Braun and his Cape Canaveral team, 14-year-old Homer Hickam decided in 1957 to build his own rockets.” Homer went on to train astronauts for NASA.

There are many other great science stories of people who developed their own science projects – Thomas Alva Edison with more than 1000 patents who gave us everything from the light bulb to the phonograph, Alexander Graham Bell who perfected the telephone and helped with a teacher who brought Helen Keller out of her soundless darkness, Nickola Tesla who made our modern electrical world, the Wright Brothers whose rickety invention set us on a course to the stars, Charles Babbage who created the first mechanical computer, and so many more.

Young people need to be challenged beyond their comfort zone. Taking the easy path is not the way to long-term success.

Playing with the result of science is a great thing, but being part of the development of science is a thrilling experience.

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