During a decade of researching Leonardo da Vinci for her young adult novel, “Edge of Yesterday,” Robin Stevens Payes discovered da Vinci is the ultimate polymath and role model for how our kids learn: He was someone interested in art, science, engineering and nature. As an illegitimate child, he was shunned from traditional tutoring arrangements, so he entertained his own discoveries, combining his love of outdoors with his interest in learning about the world around him.
Payes is concerned that kids no longer have such interdisciplinary learning methods. “We make kids specialize from preschool on,” said Payes. “If there was someone who wanted to do it all, like Leo, could he? Could Leo be Leo today?”
Payes believes fiction, like “Edge of Yesterday,” is one way to connect humanities-focused kids with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Payes is working with organizations such as Girls in Technology, and she set up an interactive website to go along with the book. She’s found that ideal learners are those that incorporate both science and humanities, and she’s come up with a few tactics that work. A lightly edited Q&A follows.
The Washington Post: Your background is in science writing. Are kids receptive to the combination of blending the arts and sciences?
Robin Stevens Payes: Kids are receptive because they don’t have the distinction that we do as adults. Kids don’t have this designation that “this is a STEM field and I only do that,” vs. “I like to read and I hate science.” We have these artificial categories.
Science, technology and engineering are creative. Coming up with the idea for Facebook was creative, or Google Glass, or virtual reality, and it’s based on science, engineering and math principles. You can’t do one without the other.
TWP: What are some ways that parents can engage kids in STEM fields, at any age?
RSP: I’ll go back to Leonardo. Because he was illegitimate, Leonardo was an outsider who roamed the countryside. He had this native ability to draw, he was obsessive about observing the world around him and documenting it. He sketched flows of water in the river. He drew birds in flight. He used to go to the marketplace and there were birds for dinner in cages, and he’d set them all free so he could study their wings up close to see how they soared.
He was free to do that. If he had been a legitimate son, he probably would have been tutored and exposed to the culture of the court.
Other polymaths had similar experiences. Einstein didn’t speak until he was 3; he flunked out of school because he didn’t want to follow the rules. These people have certain things in common. They were unconventional and they were not constrained by the normal acculturation. There are formative years when kids soak in their surroundings, everything around them is new, and they are sponges. Birth to age 3 is one of these critical windows. Whatever environment you are in, you are constantly watching and evolving and modeling your behavior. It’s a very important time for language learning and socialization.
Parents can encourage kids to be curious. To the extent that it’s not hurting the child or anyone else, it’s okay if they’re bending the rules. What I get upset about is when I see parents taking their kids to soccer practice at age 3 and it’s very structured and they have to play by certain rules. Cognitively, they aren’t sophisticated enough to understand the rules adults play by. If it’s just kick the ball around, creative play, that is great.
Playtime is really important for young children. Time out of doors is really important, and unstructured time where kids are not parked in front of the screen. They can be bored. Boredom sparks a change of state or change of mind where you find something interesting to do. Or it’s time to just daydream, and be curious.
For older kids, the second window of opportunity is adolescence. Brains are making new connections in new ways, with an emotional layer added into it. In terms of cognition, there are a lot of opportunities to reach new learning milestones and start the process for deeper learning.
The best thing parents can do is have a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset is “I’m never going to be good at this,” and this gets reinforced by teachers and parents in subtle ways. A growth mindset is “You tried really hard. I’ll bet we can figure out a way to make this work better for you.” You may not be Einstein, but you can get better at what you can do.
TWP: Your characters have a variety of interests: music, science, soccer. What does the creative process offer someone who is scientifically minded?
RSP: Think about what science is: It’s a story, we call it a hypothesis. Same with engineering: If you want to build a bridge, how do you build a bridge to be structurally sound? You have a process to figure that out, and it’s a story in a way.
I don’t think we do a good job of getting kids to think that way. We are still using 19th-century-style classroom learning. Teachers teach to a test, and the teachers are judged by how well their students do on the test. I don’t think traditional teachers say, “Give me 10 ways to solve this problem.” That type of learning would open up creative thinking.
TWP: The book centers on the protagonist, Charley, and her obsession with Leonardo da Vinci. Why da Vinci and why time travel?
RSP: Leo is the ultimate do-it-all guy. I got the idea to have someone time travel back in time to learn how Leo did it all. I wanted the main character to be a girl on purpose.
We know that physical time travel is not possible today, but in the future there may be evidence for parallel universes we can travel bridge. So could you go back in time to a parallel universe? Again, this is imagination, but cosmologists have done the math that theorizes parallel universes. Until we can disprove it, it’s not impossible. Until the scientists proved that the Higgs-Boson could travel faster than the speed of light, nothing could travel faster than the speed of light. It drives people crazy who want science to be definitive.
Rebecca Gale is a journalist and writer. Follow her @beckgale.
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