on the march

It’s a funny thing, a “march” is. Where are you going, after all, and what do you do when you get there? A march, as we think of it nowadays, is never with the aim to storm a castle, and only rarely does it involve musical instruments or people with batons. We know that a march is most closely associated with some kind of protest or statement of support, but it’s funny that the action should represent such a thing. By itself, it does so very little of any practical value. At the end, you probably turn around and go back the way you came.

And I guess that’s why I empathize with people who’ve asked, “So what’s the march for?” Especially since we’re talking about the March for Science. Let’s be clear: In scientists, we’re talking about some of the very most pragmatic, literal people in the world. I can say this with love: We scientists aren’t always all that fun to be around. We don’t always get the joke or the metaphorical. And we don’t always appreciate things that are poetically symbolic and certainly we don’t always see the need for anything that is not immediately logical and purposely designed. (Yes, there are plenty of science poets and writers and humorists and emoters and the like — I know because I work with these very people.) I have this funny vision that once the scientists all get there at the Mall in D.C., we may just look at each other in some socially awkward way, maybe wishing we’d brought a research poster and a graph to point at.

So, given all these contrasts of the pragmatic and the poetic, it is perfectly appropriate to wonder why. En route on an airplane for the march tomorrow, I’m trying to sort this out for myself. There’s an argument that we should not march for science because we’re making science political—politicizing science, as you’d say. This is a fair issue to consider, but I’ll counter that, today in particular, I’d like to see a little more science in politics and especially in policy. It needs to be intrinsically fused into the consciousness of the democratic discourse, one that we should all be part of. If we can inject evidence-based rationality into our collective consciousness and make sure it’s considered in our highest-level decision making—well, then, let’s politicize it with vigor.

I’m marching because I’ve realized that just doing the pragmatic isn’t enough. I’m marching because there’s a lack of understanding of science, both what it means and how it works. I march because there are issues that are too important to not think that they need to be political. We need vaccines. We need clean water. We need to limit carbon emissions. We need to preserve what we have left. We need to work hard as a country, as communities, politically and socially, to solve really sticky problems and prevent others. We can do this if we use all the tools; but we have to have all the tools at our disposal. Science is an essential tool.

And then there’s my teachers. When I say “my teachers,” I mean at first the teachers I work with. But they’re also “my teachers.” When I visit their classrooms, students will inevitably take me aside and wonder out loud what I’m doing there. I tell them I’m there to learn more about teaching science, and it’s absolutely true. In their classes I witness the truly extraordinary. I’d call these “miracles,” but I’m speaking as a scientist here.

In these teachers’ classrooms, I have seen (and come to expect) that scientific thinking is collaborative. It’s experiential. It’s engaging. It’s thoughtful and explanatory and powerful and accessible to elementary students. If they can do these things, then I think the grown-ups (and the legislators) should do this as well. And I know that they can. Most especially, I’ve seen what it looks like to welcome and empower children with a sense of wonder. What do you see in this leaf? Why do you think that rock formation forms an arch? How can we make something move? These are the prompts that children love, and the ones that we should remind ourselves of.

I learn more about this from teachers than from any other group of people I know. Sure, I work with scientists, people solving the problems big and small: how big can that planet be and how small can this semiconducting film be? Those are spectacular problems because at first glance it seems like we have no right to know the answers to these things. But we do; and we know those answers specifically because we’ve been paying attention to evidence, because we’ve been critical, and because we’ve been creative about it all.

Thinking about what I bring to the march and whose voice I’m representing, I thought about these teachers. So I made this shirt:

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All these verbs of science come from science reforms demonstrating practices that portray science in action and in its element. As I’ve worked with teachers and their students, “wonder” and “imagine” and others tied lots of this together and motivated the “ask” and “analyze” and “model” and the rest. These are the verbs that I want for all; and I want us to honor all that they provide. Teachers and their students remind me of this.

So these educators give me a sense of what I’m marching for, but to be honest it took one other piece to get me to march, or to think that it is even a tenable idea. My student, Amanda, is sweet and ebullient, thoughtful and polite; and she’s smart and tenacious, hardworking and dedicated. She devotes hours a week working with colleagues in an advanced physics lab or in the observatory or pounding her head against physics problems. Back in January, Amanda joined a small group for the enormously vibrant Women’s March in Washington, D.C. When I see my own students doing bold things I’m called out and reminded: I need to do the bold things, even the things that I’m not naturally comfortable with doing.

So Amanda and colleagues are my role models and my reminder that yes, I can and should do these things. I need to be a voice—whatever voice that is and in whatever mode this needs to be. In the process, I’m marching for Amanda as my role model, but also as a scientist with a scientific future. I’m marching for my daughters and their own aspirations for science, for healthy lives, for a sustainable Earth. I’m marching for ideals taught in our classrooms and delivering a message that I hope is heard: We must wonder and argue and solve, and we need to bring evidence and the scientific thinking to the fore to make this happen. Here’s hoping that a march, symbolic as it may be, can illuminate, promote, and instill these ideals in our leaders—as well as my teachers can instill them in our third graders.