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Q&A with Dr. Lee Hartwell (Part II)

Applying Science to Improve Healthcare and Education


What is your sustainability education project?

The second interest is one about educating the public about the science behind our concern for the planet and the whole sustainability movement. What I see happening in our world is that very few people really understand or appreciate science. That’s sort of disappointing, just because it’s so interesting. But for a much more practical reason, it’s fundamental to developing a sustainable model for living on this planet with 7 billion people approaching 9 billion. What’s blocking a lot of the effective technology we have for dealing with these problems is the fact that people just don’t understand the real fundamental issues, and yet they control the decision-making, the politics.

What is the opportunity in K-8 sustainability education?

I think the whole educational arena is undergoing a revolution right in front of us, and we’re sort of not seeing it. That is, we’re still kind of dedicated to the standard classroom routine when the kids are learning everything off of the Internet. It’s completely incongruous and education will eventually take that route, even formal education. We no longer need to become domain experts. Education has been, in the past, trying to stuff enough information in so you kind of know one area and can perform as an expert and recall facts and procedures. That’s just no longer necessary because the information is freely available whenever you need it. We’re seeing the bright young kids able to move from one arena to another and solve problems. The issue is much more about understanding problems, sizing them up, thinking about the complexity and the systems nature of things, understanding what data means, particularly asking questions – asking your own questions – and seeking the answers to those questions and following the path that your natural curiosity leads you.

What we need to do is capture their inherent interest in the world around them before we beat it out of them in the classroom. So I’m just interested in this question of how can we introduce science in a way that feeds the natural curiosity and interest that kids have rather than destroying it by asking them to memorize a lot of stuff.

How will your education initiative make a difference?

I’m developing a course for K-8 teachers that, under the current plan, will be required for all K-8 teachers at ASU – about 1,000 a year. It’s completely Internet based, and we intend to scale it to an online version that reaches beyond ASU. We intend also to maintain a supportive relationship for the teachers who come through this course once they get into the classroom because the technology permits us to do really anything we can imagine. I think one of the problems that teachers face is that when they get in the classroom they’re isolated, they’re alone, they have no support.

The question about how to engage kids in the fundamental excitement and interest of science is something I don’t understand at all. But I do see young kids really interested in everything and older kids not, so there’s something happening there. And I do see kids of all ages totally immersed in technology, and I think there’s an answer there. So I guess that’s my research now. I have an appointment in the school of education, I’m in the classroom with K-8 teachers now, and I’m trying to figure it out. I mean, I think that’s what you always have to do when you have a problem you don’t understand – immerse yourself in it, try to figure it out.

What is the sustainability challenge that concerns you most?

The sustainability challenge for us as humans is twofold: “don’t use up all the resources” and “don’t pollute the planet” is kind of the mantra. So that’s one way to look at it, but it’s much more immediate than that. It’s a little bit strange, I think, to be so concerned about future generations when 70-80 percent, at least, of the world’s population at the current time is suffering in poverty and lack of adequate water, health, food. I think the problem in front of us is really starting to address, in a serious way, the inequities that exist.