Love of science takes wing

There is a difference between learning about something and learning to love something. It is a difference that’s plain enough to bird watchers but seems to stump some educators.

There is widespread agreement that the future of our nation and the success of our kids depend on improvements in science and math education. The acronym for these studies is STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.

There’s pressure on schools and students to achieve higher test scores in STEM areas.

But here’s an unsettling development. A survey by the ACT testing service finds more college-bound students are scoring well in math and science — but barely one in 10 is expressing interest in a STEM college major or occupation.

Citing this statistic, the New York Times editorial board recently commented: “American students are bored by math, science and engineering. They buy smartphones and tablets by the millions but don’t pursue the skills necessary to build them. Engineers and physicists are often portrayed as clueless geeks on television, and despite the high pay and the importance of such jobs to the country’s future, the vast majority of high school graduates don’t want to go after them.”

Contrast this with the spirit shown by those bundled-up bird watchers we’ve recently seen trudging through our parks and wandering the shorelines of Snohomish County.

Local chapters of the National Audubon Society organize annual Christmas Bird Counts in which volunteers methodically record bird sightings in specific geographical areas. The Everett-area count was on Dec. 14, and the Edmonds count was this past Saturday.

Participants spend a day looking and listening, setting up scopes and referring to field guides, trying to make sure they are not mistakenly reporting a Rock Sandpiper as a more ordinary Dunlin.

And they love it.

Almost since the count’s inception in 1900, annual records from local groups have been compiled nationally, providing a body of data that tells us which species are being displaced, which habitat boundaries are shifting and which “vagrant” birds are straying into unexpected corners of the continent.

The Christmas Bird Count is a long-running example of citizen science, painstaking and enlightening work done by folks who enjoy contributing to the wider body of knowledge. It has its roots in a time when curiosity about science and the natural world was a social attribute equal to a knowledge of current events or the appreciation of books or art.

These ardent birders can offer a simple lesson: Mastering STEM subjects may improve our test scores, but learning to love science or math can enrich our lives.

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