Friday, May 18, 2012

Dr. Ainissa Ramirez, Science Evangelist

Last week I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Ainissa Ramirez, a Science Evangelist with Yale University. For those of you who follow MommyMaestra on Facebook, you may remember a video clip I shared during the Super Bowl that explained the physics behind a football. Dr. Ramirez was the narrator of this short video from Yale’s Science Xplained series. With a little digging, I was delighted to discover that not only does Dr. Ramirez have a few other videos available, but she also hosts another series from her lab at the university titled Material Marvels (the example shown above has Spanish subtitles).

She is also the founder of the university’s popular weekend program, Science Saturdays, where she has conducted free lectures to local youth introducing them to science in a fun and interactive manner. But don't worry if you don't live near Yale. 

A first-generation African American, Dr. Ramirez is the daughter of West Indian parents. The name Ramirez comes from her step-dad who adopted her when she was two. She said that she has always known that she wanted to become a scientist. Her mother was a nurse who frequently left her biology books lying around the house and her father was a computer electrical engineer. The focus in her house was on education and encouraged her to pursue her dreams in engineering. Fascinated with Smart Materials, Dr. Ramirez focused on these in her lab at Yale, where she was an Associate Professor for many years. She currently holds 10 patents in micro electrical mechanical systems (MEMS).

Passionate about teaching children and inspiring them to explore science, Dr. Ramirez recently left her position as Associate Professor at Yale and the director of the Science Saturdays program to assume a broader-reaching position as Science Evangelist. Confused, I asked her what that meant exactly and she told me her main responsibility now is lecturing. "Last week I talked to over 400 high school students in New York," Ramirez said. Her goal? To demystify science and make it more human and personal. Her moving and motivational lectures earned her the opportunity to give a
TED Talk this year, where she immediately captured the attention of the audience when she walked on the stage with a blow torch and a metal rod!

"We need to provide more role models for children," Ramirez said. "They need to see their faces reflected in these positions." Ramirez herself was inspired as a child by shows like 3-2-1 Contact on the Electric Company. And one of the most motivating moments for her was when she saw a black girl on the show doing science.

Dr. Ramirez also believes that STEM education needs a major overhaul. Too many students feel trepidation when it comes to science. "This is our Sputnik moment," she says. She wants to see a movement away from simply asking kids to memorize vast amounts of information, and instead see science teachers promote problem solving, experimentation, innovation, and learning. She thinks schools need to focus on the fundamentals then let the kids get their hands dirty and give them permission to be wrong as long as they are learning, even though she recognizes the difficulty in evaluating student learning. But she thinks that just memorizing facts in order to pass a test isn’t the right way to go, either. "This is how you innovate," Dr. Ramirez said. "You fail your way to discovery!"

As technology continues to advance and become available in the general market, she knows a big shift is coming in the realm of STEM. "Change comes from non-conventional sources," she said. "I expect to see a rise in citizen scientists."

Some of Dr. Ramirez's favorite science resources for kids are after-school programs, museums, and libraries. She'd really like to see more scientists getting out of the lab and engaging students.

Dr. Ramirez has written a downloadable guide for teachers and parents with 60 pages of of over 43 materials science demonstrations called Demoworks. Objectives, materials, procedures, explanations and references are provided with each demo. She also has a many more videos planned for the coming year. You can find them all by checking Yale's YouTube channel.

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