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Learning Library Blog Teach Students To Find the ‘Why’ Behind the ‘How’
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Teach Students To Find the ‘Why’ Behind the ‘How’

By Nicole Krueger
May 25, 2023
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Could invisibility cloaks become real technology? In a recent episode of her science podcast, Alie Ward interviewed a theoretical optical physicist who’s working on making it happen.

Why? Because when he was a kid, a teacher explained to him how light worked, and it stuck with him.

“There are so many teachers who have no idea they informed a person’s entire career,” says Ward, a Daytime Emmy Award-winning science correspondent for CBS’ “The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca” and creator of “Ologies,” a comedic science show named one of Time Magazine’s top 50 podcasts.

“If you can get people excited and ignite that in someone, it can become a lifelong passion.”

Her approach to getting kids excited about science: Treat it like it’s juicy gossip.

“People think science is all pedantic people in spotless lab coats telling them what is right and what is wrong, but that’s not what science is,” she says. “Kids should understand that science can get dirty and messy. I have friends who are rocket scientists for NASA, and their lab benches look like your uncle’s garage. Science is about really curious people working hard to find the answer to something they’re excited about.”

When she delivers her keynote speech at ISTELive 23, Ward hopes to urge educators to think of science — and learning in general — less as an objective and more as a means to an end.

“No one wants to sit down and learn coding unless they have an idea of what they’re trying to make,” she says. “When it comes to curriculum, one thing we tend to overlook a lot is how something can be put to use. When students really figure out what it is they’re trying to achieve with it, they get excited about the process.”


The importance of finding the ‘why’

One of the things Ward loves about her job is visiting national science fairs and talking to students about their projects.

“It’s amazing to walk around the floor. There are kids in high school working on immunology treatments for cancer. It’s just unbelievable,” she says. “When I ask what made them do this, the reason is always something personal to them in some way.”

Helping students find their own reasons for learning is so important, she adds, because it helps carry them through the frustration when things don’t work out the way they want.

“The first 100 prototypes might not work, but you get closer with every iteration. The passion of the ‘why’ helps with the ‘how.’ As long as you have a strong enough ‘why,’ you’ll go down that path as long as you need to.”

Even Ward, who’s been working in her dream job as a science communicator for the past decade, feels burned out sometimes. When she’s pulling a long work week or staying up until 4 a.m. preparing an episode of her podcast, the “why” is what keeps her going.

“Part of my ‘why’ is that I want to let people know science is weirder and funnier than we think,” she says.

Collecting wisdom from the world’s geniuses

Ward, who not only hosts “Did I Mention Invention?” on the CW but also appears on both Netflix’s science series “Brainchild” and Science Channel’s “How to Build Everything,” has interviewed some of the smartest people on Earth — from the inventor of the cell phone to scientists who have launched rockets to Mars.

Naturally, she has managed to pick up a few life hacks in the process. Here’s some of the wisdom she’s collected throughout her career:

Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force.

After talking to hundreds of people about their groundbreaking, Earth-changing inventions, Ward noticed they all have one thing in common: Not one of them did it for the money. “There was a problem they wanted to solve, something they struggled with or saw someone struggling with. It comes down to what you can do to make the world a better place. Intrinsic goals always take you farther than extrinsic measures of success.”

Problems are awesome.

The great thing about problems is that they inspire solutions. “If you have a problem, chances are other people have it too,” she says. “If you look around and see that a problem needs to be solved in your life, now you have an intrinsic goal.”

Impostor syndrome is more common than you think.

Ward has met plenty of successful people who are still battling imposter syndrome. “I see it a lot in the arts, teaching, the science community, TV show hosts, lawyers. So many people don’t feel like they belong there. But if you don’t see someone like you in the room, it means you belong there even more.”

Failure isn’t just natural — it’s essential.

Some 90% of the people Ward interviews say they could not have succeeded without failing along the way. “Don’t let your failures and setbacks and frustrations tell you that you don’t belong there,” she says. “Everyone fails, they just don’t talk about it. It’s the people who know they belong there and have the confidence to get through it that stick around.”

Ultimately, Ward believes the luckiest people are those who find jobs that allow them to keep learning throughout their entire lives.

Need PBL ideas? Discover real-world projects for real-world classrooms. Read ISTE's book Reinventing Project-Based Learning.

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.