How Embracing What We Don’t Know Can Drive Solutions to World Problems

EarthzineOpEd, Original

Humans use their incredible creativity to discover and explore.

Investigating Seeds. Image Credit: JJ Clark, The Greenway Foundation.

Investigating Seeds. Image Credit: JJ Clark, The Greenway Foundation.

I believe in the ingenuity of human creativity. By accepting the challenges before us while acknowledging the limits of our current knowledge, we have the ability to address ecological concerns at hand.
The problems facing humans today have the same roots as the problems we faced when civilization began: how to provide food, water, and shelter to our communities while preventing illness and unhappiness. As human populations and technologies have expanded, so too have the size, scope, and rate of these problems. But our ability to investigate the world around us in new ways has also expanded. In the last 100 years alone, humans have cracked the genetic code, successfully transplanted a human heart, begun exploring space and the deep sea, and identified and moved to address the cause of rising ozone levels.
We continue to solve (and create) problems that our ancestors assumed were immutable or could not even imagine. We are able to do this because science springs fundamentally from a fascination with the unknown, and there is always one more thing that is unknown. Those two tenants of science—wonder and mystery—are still bountifully available, and they are seeing a recent resurgence in being valued by today’s workforce.
Lophelia coral in the Gulf of Mexico. Image Credit: Lophelia II 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM.

Lophelia coral in the Gulf of Mexico. Image Credit: Lophelia II 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM.

National and state science standards in the U.S. have been rewritten in the last several years to address concerns expressed by employers that many graduates in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fields lack the independent thinking and innovation desired in the workforce. New Next Generation Science Standards place an emphasis on applicability of science rather than on rote memorization of facts.
For instance, of five key components in new Colorado Academic Standards, three are invention, critical thinking, and self-direction. Furthermore, the Colorado Science Standards make an explicit acknowledgement of the important role of inquiry in science—the art of asking and exploring questions. The Miami University, Ohio has created a graduate program centered around the importance of inquiry.
Encouraging the ability to ask questions is important for adults as well as for children. It encourages students not to lose the curiosity they began life with. Those who work with young children and observe them in the process of learning have the opportunity to see the best part of the scientific process in action.  Children have the capacity to be inspired and fearlessly ask questions and imagine answers based only on previous knowledge.
What children lack are the facts and principles necessary to fully turn these germs of ideas into functional real-world inventions. The facts and rules of science are exactly what adults possess, but conviction in the importance of our own curiosity is sometimes lacking.
By embracing the idea that what we don’t know is an opportunity, we can foster discovery and create a society that will support the innovations we need to live in a more sustainable way on our Earth. Wonder surrounds us, and that gives me hope.

Coyote Willows. Image Credit: JJ Clark, The Greenway Foundation.

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